The state of the film industry is pretty dire when it comes to female filmmakers. A couple of years ago, the stats for women directors and writers was something like 17% -- Kathryn Bigelow's Best Director Oscar seems like a minor miracle -- and that number is not exactly improving at a record pace (it may even be getting worse). Where Do We Go Now? was not only written and directed by a woman, Nadine Labaki, but produced by another woman, Anne-Dominique Toussaint, not to mention the fact that Labaki is a foreigner tackling Christianity and Muslim faith. It's impressive that the film got made and secured worldwide distribution...which only makes some of Labaki's writing choices that much more disappointing.
In a tiny Lebanese village, Christians and Muslims live side by side in peace. The nearest town is miles away, requiring the occasional trip by motor vehicle, and electronics are essentially non-existent. Desperate for entertainment, the men place a satellite dish on a faraway hill and hook up the only TV they can find to get a glimpse of the outside world, but their first transmission is a news program detailing violent disagreements between Christians and Muslims. As if hypnotized, the men of the village begin to act out what they've seen on the news, becoming bitter and angry toward those of the opposing faith, forcing the women to devise an elaborate series of distractions in the hope of preventing everyone from picking up guns and reflecting conflicts they're miles away from.
It may be true that women's voices are muted in cinema, and it's not surprising that a female director wants to focus on female characters, but, even so, there really needs to be a reason why all the men (with the exception of the priest and the imam) are morons and all the women are wise. In the extras, Labaki refers to the film as a "fairy tale," suggesting that the stand-off is part of a heightened reality, but not enough of the finished film evokes that mood of heightened reality. Instead, the film comes off like the religious version of a sitcom scene where a driving couple argues over whether or not to ask for directions.
Sitcom distractions trickle down into some of the story, rendering the movie's effectiveness hit-and-miss. A sequence where the women bake a bunch of relaxing drugs into free food for a town gathering, is inspired and lively, complete with festive singing, whereas a plot to hire prostitutes to distract the men from their disagreements is rooted in stereotype and cliche (both in terms of the men falling all over themselves for the nearly silent women and in terms of the female townsfolk sniping about the prostitutes' appearance). Labaki also hopes to blend the comedic with the dramatic, most prominently in a thread where the son of one woman (Claude Baz Moussawbaa) is killed during a trip into the big city, but it's so shattering and dark that jumping to it amidst wacky hijinks just creates emotional whiplash.
Labaki earns decent performances from a mix of amateur and professional actors (Moussawbaa and Yvonne Maalouf are stand-outs), and she plays a crucial role herself, that of Amale, the owner of a local cafe, but the movie frequently feels a draft away from being finished. An undeveloped romantic thread between Amale and Rabih (Julian Farhat), who is slowly painting the interior of Amale's cafe, is left dangling after a charming fantasy sequence, and the movie goes from underwhelming to slightly frustrating in its final moments, when Labaki whips out an idea so good the whole movie ought to have been re-written around it. There is no question that Labaki is a talented filmmaker, and Where Do We Go Now? has a number of interesting ideas about religious conflict and Lebanese culture, but they never coalesce into a clear message or point amongst the tonal shifts and sitcom-level notions about men and women.
The "strip" design is quickly becoming the Blu-Ray artwork equivalent of movie posters with floating heads, in my opinion: a strip for the title, and a couple of strips of pictures -- done! Yawn. Designers also have focused on Labaki's character, even though the film is an ensemble picture without a central character. The disc comes in a standard Blu-Ray case, with an insert about Sony Pictures Classics' 20th anniversary.
The Video and AUdio
Presented in 2.35:1 AVC 1080p, this is a solid HD presentation that is swayed more by the intended look of the film than the benefits of Blu-Ray. Fine detail is very strong throughout, from lines in faces to the texture of cloth and stone, but the contrast and color palette are defined by Labaki's cinematography. The look of the film is generally in shades of brown, without much in the way of vivid, natural colors (even leaves and sky have a hint of tan to them). Contrast is a little on the flat side, limiting depth and dimension to the image.
A DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is bright and lively. This is a very musical film, from the score to actual musical numbers, and all of it is very nicely rendered, with lively surround activity and plenty of pop. There is plenty of crowd activity, both in terms of conflict and friendship -- Amale's crowded cafe, the gathering area with the television, etc. English subttiles are also included.
An audio commentary with director / writer / actor Nadine Labaki and composer Khaled Mouzanar. Tthe conversation is led by Labaki, who covers the intended tone of the film, her inspirations in the writing, and the experience working with the cast, with Mouzanar (who is Labaki's husband) chiming in whenever music comes up, and how having the music in the writing stage helped in envisioning the film.
Video extras begin with "An Evening With Nadine Labaki, Khaled Mouzanar, and Anne-Dominique Toussaint" (39:11) is the most valuable, consisting of an introduction and Q&A session, hosted by critic Stephen Farber, from a screening of the film. Topics discussed include Labaki's reasons for writing the film, how Toussaint and Labaki came to work together, discovery of the cast, the process of scoring the film, and more. For those who don't have time to listen to the commentary can save time by watching this extra, which inevitably includes some crossover. "The Making of Where Do We Go Now?" (18:16) is an interesting fly-on-the-wall look at production. The loose editing may not hold the viewer's attention for almost a half-hour, but it's absolutely more fun to watch than a traditional EPK. "Where Do We Go Now?: Making the Music" (12:16) is an extended look at the music that went into the soundtrack with Labaki, Mouzanar, and other artists and cast members who participated in the recording sessions.
A promo for Blu-Ray and trailers for Hysteria, Damsels in Distress, A Separation, Chicken With Plums, and Celeste and Jesse Forever play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for Where Do We Go Now? is also included.
There's plenty to like in Where Do We Go Now?, but Labaki fails to decide on what she wants to do with those elements, resulting in a film that goes all over the map without much to show for it. For those who can get by on ambition alone, it might be worth a rental.
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