Current & Recent Cinema
Selected films seen in 2007& 2008...
Selected films seen in 2007& 2008...
Click on the title of any film to find its review... Films graded A- or higher are so indicated in red
Click on the title of any film to find its review...
graded A- or higher are so indicated in red
12:08 East of Bucharest A-
12:08 East of Bucharest
Naming Number Two
Naming Number Two
Current & Recent Cinema Reviews - Alphabetical by Film Title
12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST (A fost sau n-a fost?) (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 2006, 89 m.). SPOILER ALERT! Here is political farce at its best. The film is set in a small Romanian city on December 22, 2005, the 16th anniversary of the downfall of the repressive communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, which technically occurred at 12:08, just after noon, on the same date in 1989. Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban), an entrepreneur who has prospered in the post-revolution free market era and now counts the local television channel among his assets, decides to devote his personal talk show today to commemorating the anniversary of the week-long revolution. His guests are an old, white maned and bearded, much beloved pensioner, Mr. Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), known for his annual Santa Claus appearances over the years, and Professor Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), a seriously alcoholic local academic historian. Virgil poses the question for discussion: did the people of this city participate actively in the revolution or not? The answer turns on whether locals were agitating against Ceausescu by demonstrating in the town square before the announcement of his downfall, or, instead, whether people merely came out of the woodwork afterwards, when it was safe, to coattail on the revolutionary triumph courageously brought about by others, in Bucharest and elsewhere in the country.
The last hour of the film presents the talk show episode in real time, and it is as good as the very best of briefer political sketches in the salad years of Saturday Night Live. Virgil is the unctuous host, trying to satisfy his guests and the contentious viewers who phone in to criticize the discussants on live audio feed. Old Mr. Piscoci offhandedly, almost reluctantly, acknowledges that, yes, he was present on the scene in the square that morning, and no one challenges this. You get the sense that this fact, like everything in his life, is no big deal. In fact, he seems thoroughly bored with the proceedings and spends his time making paper boats and what look to me to be cootie catchers from notepaper on the table where the three principals sit.
Prof. Manescu on the other hand, nursing an especially foul hangover, asserts with all the pride he can muster under the circumstances that he certainly was present, calling for Ceausescu’s scalp, in the hours leading up to the moment of capitulation. A woman phones in to state point blank that Manescu’s lying, that she personally saw him drinking in a nearby tavern until well after the moment that C. stepped down. A male caller, whom Manescu had accused on the air by name of being a member of the Securitate - Ceausescu’s thug police - who hit him during a scuffle in the square, admits that while it's true that he was a Securitate agent at that time, and that he was on duty in the square, because of those very facts he can vouch for the previous woman's assertion that Manescu was nowhere to be seen until later in the day. Manescu responds by first defending himself, then trying to elope from the station during a commercial break. He’s brought back and spends the latter part of the show in a silent funk.
The TV station itself smacks of our familiar local cable access operations. A single staff person, an indifferent, skinny young man, runs the camera, mans the phones, helps Virgil chase after Manescu, and reaches his arm across the table at one point to sweep away Mr. Piscoci’s paper boats. The whole show is steeped in dark, understated humor, with, of course, serious subtexts about false claims of political glory and the larger issue of whether anything worthy of the term revolution really occurred in Romania, or at least in their town, i.e., whether most people in Romania are better off today or not. I’d love to give the film an “A” grade, but it is compromised by a creaking, protracted, confusing beginning: the first half hour is devoted to scenes in which each of the three principals, in their apartments, is awakening for the day. These scenes are shadowy; it's even hard to decipher who’s who for a while. However, these scenes do serve to establish the fact that life for the characters other than Virgil is not very good, perhaps little better than before the revolution, if that. This film won the Camera d'Or Award for best debut feature last year at Cannes. (In Romanian) Grade: B+ (2/07)
The two women remind me of the pair in Erick Zonca’s 1998 film, The Dreamlife of Angels, also about an outgoing, caring young woman (played by Elodie Bouchez) and an apartment mate who is self centered, mercurial, even suicidal (Natacha Regnier). A life lesson in both stories is that you can knock yourself out for someone else without influencing them to change one whit for the better. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, of course. You do the right thing. It’s just that you have to accept the limits of your influence as well as the limits of the other person's capacities. Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes and awards for best film and best director at the European Film Awards. (In Romanian). Grade: B+ (02/15/08)
ALEXANDRA (Aleksandra) (Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia/France, 2007, 95 m.). SPOILER ALERT! Aleksandr Sokurov, a veteran director now 56, has made 46 film and television productions to date. He has become increasingly daring in his recent projects. He made Russian Ark in 2002, noteworthy because the entire 99 minute movie is filmed in one continuous tracking shot. In 2005 he made The Sun, a remarkable character study of Japanese Emperor Hirohito in the final days of World War II, starring the prominent Japanese theater actor, Issei Ogata, and spoken entirely in Japanese (and a bit of English). Now Sokurov has cast 81 year old Galina Vishnevskaya, a former operatic diva and the spouse of Mstislav Rostropovich for 52 years until his death in April, 2007, in her first feature film role, as Alexandra, grandmother of a Russian officer deployed in the occupation of Chechnya, who comes to visit him at a hot, dusty, windswept forward base near Grozny, her journey accompanied by a pensive, elegiac musical score.
As Alexandra, Ms. Vishnevskaya is on camera in virtually every scene. Her character is a formidable, somewhat taciturn woman who is remarkably plucky and at ease in the unusual circumstances of riding in a boxcar with young soldiers on a military train, then in the top of a Russian troop carrier, finally arriving at her grandson Denis’s (Vasily Shevtsov) tent for a needed nap while he is out on a mission. After a warm reunion with Denis (they hadn’t seen one another in seven years), Alexandra stays on at the camp for a number of days until Denis is to be deployed for a long mission elsewhere. At one point she boldly walks out of the camp and strikes up conversations with Chechen women in a nearby town, and she returns with gifts for several soldiers in Denis’s company. What is both surprising yet entirely believable is the civilizing effect Alexandra’s presence has on the young soldiers. They respond to her as a maternal figure, treating her with a chivalrous degree of respect that is almost comical at times, though always touching and sincere. At the end, Alexandra must retrace her journey home, but not before stopping back in town to exchange hugs and addresses with several Chechen women she has befriended.
Sokurov has succeeded in making one of the most unusual anti-war movies I’ve seen. No political statements. No polemics. Just the actions of a matter-of-fact, good woman in bringing out the humane side of soldiers and bridging the gap with “the enemy.” Transcending perspectives of the Chechnian war itself, this film makes as good an attempt to humanize warriors as I’ve seen on screen. The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, 2007. (In Chechen & Russian) Grade: A- (02/01/08)
Add: It seems strange by the standards of our military protocol that a civilian relative could visit a base near the front. But this isn't the first time we've seen this sort of event in a Russian film. In Sergei Bodrov's 1996 masterpiece, Prisoner of the Mountains, based on a story by Tolstoy, a young Russian soldier captured by Chechen Muslim guerilla fighters bids his mother to come to the front, in the rugged, isolated Caucasus, to plead for his release. I don't know whether these filmic events are examples of a common practice in the contemporary Russian Army, or whether they simply represent the exercise of artistic license to tell a compelling story. After living in exile for many years with her family, Ms. Vishnevskaya these days directs an opera center in Moscow that is named for her; a soprano, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1961 as Aida, and her debut at La Scala in 1964 as Liù in Turandot.
ATONEMENT (Joe Wright, UK/France, 2007, 130 m.). SPOILER ALERT! I went into this film with no small degree of trepidation. To say the least, I’ve not been wildly enthusiastic about Keira Knightley’s acting talent. And to my mind, James McAvoy is a decent comedic actor (Rory in Rory O’Shea Was Here), but less than compelling in straight dramatic roies, after his lackluster performance in The Last King of Scotland (in which he was seriously miscast). Not only did both of these players perform well in Atonement, but so did the supporting cast, in a well directed production based on Ian McEwan’s best-selling 2002 novel of the same title.
Atonement is principally a love story, a story that spans several decades, beginning in 1935. Then 13-year old Briony Talis (Saoirse Ronan), a would-be writer with a protean imagination, lives a privileged life with her family in the English countryside. For some time, Robbie Turner (McAvoy), the educated son of the family’s housekeeper (Brenda Blethyn), has nurtured an undisclosed romantic interest in Briony’s willful older sister, Cecilia (Ms. Knightley). One hot summer day, Briony spies Robbie and Cecilia involved together in a moment of physical contact that makes it obvious to Robbie that Cecilia requites his feelings for her.
Briony, who has nurtured her own private crush on Robbie, is made jealous by what she sees and seeks revenge by telling a damaging lie, accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested, convicted and imprisoned, after Cecilia declares her love and promises to wait for him until he is free. The lives of all three principals are changed forever by these events, and not in ways that are easily predictable. Briony lives to bitterly regret the damage wrought by her bearing false witness, and she is hounded down the years by guilt and the need for atonement for her misdeed.
Plot twists, especially near the end, are ingeniously concocted, and there are also scenes of encounters that we see recursively though from different vantage points. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is a long (several minute) pan of the staging area for the infamous evacuation of defeated British troops at Dunkirk. It is a heartbreaking, riveting reenactment of what was one of the most tragically epical events of WW II.
Joe Wright, the BAFTA Award-winning director of Pride & Prejudice, has reunited, for Atonement, with his filmmaking team and with Ms. Knightley and Ms. Blethyn from P & P. The screenplay was imaginatively adapted from McEwans’s novel by Christopher Hampton (who wrote screenplays for Dangerous Liaisons, Carrington and The Quiet American, among other film and television projects). Both Mr. McAvoy and Ms. Knightley "age" effectively as we follow them through the years. Not only are the three principal roles well played, but there are fine supporting turns by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave, as Briony at 18 and in late middle age, respectively. Grade: B+ (01/10/08)
AUTISM: THE MUSICAL (Tricia Regan, US, 2007, 93 min.). At a private school for autistic children in Los Angeles, Elaine Hall, one of the mothers, undertakes the direction of a student musical production which she labels the “Miracle Project.” We follow five kids, who vary in age, speech, motor behavior and sociability, and their parents through several months of rehearsals and then see part of the actual show. The school scene is fairly chaotic. Some of the parents are pretty volatile as well. (Musician Stephen Stills is one of the fathers and is well behaved.) The chaos is accentuated by the style of the editing, which often features a barrage of very brief cuts among several scenes and camera angles. There’s a decent idea behind this frenetic film, i.e., to humanize autistic kids and their families, but it could have been better realized. (A grant will provide for another Miracle Project production at the school next year.) This film was made for HBO. Grade B (01/17/08)
The dramatic elements in the film derive from these simple facts: the tensions, denial, sadness and even jealousies that debilitate the spouses whose loved ones are ill; the coping efforts made by everyone to survive, to combat isolation, to somehow get through the pathetic, heart rending realities that dementia visits upon married couples and families, suffering that is unavoidable for those afflicted and non-afflicted alike.
From a clinical point of view, the film is a decidedly mixed bag: in several respects highly authentic and, in others, frustratingly inaccurate. Let’s start with the positives. All four principal actors are superb. Ms. Christie, a relatively “cool” actress emotionally, is quite able to represent the subdued affectivity often associated with early Alzheimers in a more authentic style than could more emotionally “warm” actors like Gena Rowlands in Notebook or Dame Judi Dench in Iris. Michael Murphy’s Aubrey is even better. Aubrey is supposed to be suffering from some sort of post infectious encephalopathy, but he comes across as a picture perfect example of more advanced Alzheimers dementia. He has a vacant stare most of the time, does not speak, tends toward immobility and, partly as a consequence, considerable motor stiffness. The picture is clinically perfect for the middle stage of this disease.
Mr. Pinsent and Ms. Dukakis portray differing yet entirely believable non-afflicted spouses. Pinsent’s Grant is by turns gravely worried about his wife, bereft and lonely when she is separated from him, and given to denial of her illness: all common responses of loved ones in the earlier stages. Ms. Dukakis is more the realist, accepting of the finality of the disease and the fact that Aubrey may never again be her husband in any real sense of that term. Perhaps she has logged more years of suffering, witnessing her husband’s decline, and this longer exposure almost inevitably leads the healthy spouse to abandon any illusions about the disease.
Some viewers might doubt the realism of Fiona’s immediate, affectionate and nearly total attachment to Aubrey in the care facility, but I can assure you that such attachments are quite common and often valuable, a coping strategy that can bring an immense sense of security to the afflicted “couple,” though not infrequently a cause of concern and conflict for family and staff alike. And when the nursing aid Kristy (Kristen Thomson) tells Grant that he should expect Fiona’s condition to vary a lot from day to day, she’s correct.
Then we get to the negatives. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that Fiona’s placement in residential care (assisted living) is justified. Fiona reads books about Alzheimers and takes the initiative to seek her own placement. Grant is opposed to this, wants her to remain at home. This is the inverse of by far the more common situation. Most people with early Alzheimers – even the brightest and most insightful, [and I’ve encountered university English professors, even Oxford dons, with the disorder] – don’t acknowledge that they are ill, have no interest in reading about Alzheimers, and are vehement in protesting their placement in residential care. Their healthy spouses feel the same way: the last thing they want is to give up care for their beloved partner. They do so typically only when their spouse’s abnormal behaviors exceed their capacity to cope, usually after a period of many months to years of struggling to manage things at home.
On the contrary, here we see Fiona generally behaving quite acceptably. Yes, she shows marked memory loss and spatial disorientation. She puts the washed frying pan in the refrigerator. She wanders away once and is unaccounted for for many hours. But she shows no signs of psychotic, aggressive, agitated or depressive behaviors, and doesn’t get into any truly dangerous scrapes. Her social skills remain more than adequate, typical in the first stages of the illness. Grant seems quite capable of managing things with Fiona at home and prefers this course to continue. Institutionalizing her at this point rings entirely false here.
It is also clinically wrong that, given her generally favorable level of functioning, Fiona should have so much difficulty recognizing Grant when he comes to visit after the first month she is in care. Even if she cannot recall his name, she should still easily be able to acknowledge that he is her spouse and react accordingly. For that matter, the policy of the assisted living facility (in this film) that prohibits any visitation by loved ones in the first month after placement is way off the mark. That’s SOP for residential addictions treatment, but everyone who knows anything about dementia acknowledges the importance of sustaining the familiar when a major move occurs: arranging for favorite articles of clothing, family photos, prints from home hung on the walls, other mementos, and, especially, visitation by loved ones, from the getgo, to provide continuity and ease the inevitable apprehension in circumstances of abrupt and highly discomfiting change for the afflicted individual.
I scrutinized the end credits in vain looking for a credit for any professional geriatric mental health or dementia consultant or agency. Regrettably, the lack of such input shows here. Of course filmmakers are under no obligation to make their productions clinically authentic. But there is no reason not to do so either. It’s rather like my partner’s pet peeve. She was a prodigious violist in adolescence, and she almost leaps screaming from her seat in films that show simulated and flagrantly unrealistic violin playing in a movie, when it would have been so easy to shoot and intercut a little close up footage of a real player. Oh, well. Dramatically, this film is moderately interesting, but clinically it falls far short of my gold standard, Bille August’s 2002 Swedish film, A Song for Martin, about a dementing symphony composer/conductor and his devoted spouse. Grade: B (1/31/07)
THE BAND’S VISIT (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret) (Eran Kolirin, Israel/France/US, 2007, 87 m.). Here’s a successful comedy from first time writer/director Eran Kolirin, an ebullient and funny young fellow who was present at this screening to discuss his film and generally horse around. This little story, which was made up by Mr. Kolirin, takes place over roughly 24 hours; it is a tale of cultural divide overcome by human connection. The band in question is Egyptian: an eight-member uniformed police band from Alexandria that has come to play at a small Israeli desert town as part of a cultural exchange celebration of a newly opened Arab Arts Center. The band is led by an older, taciturn fellow, Lt. Col. Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai), who brooks not even a hint of insolence, a feverish affect that nearly boils over in one of the band’s newest members, the tall, seductive Khaled (Saleh Bakri). Left by the bus in the wrong place, Col. Zacharya’s little troupe benefit from the goodwill of a woman who runs an eatery, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz, who starred in Or [My Treasure]).
Fun in this movie comes in various forms. The awkward billeting of three bandsmen with a family headed by a gloomy fellow who turns out to be musical. A subtle little physical comedy sequence at a roller rink, when Khaled teaches a young local fellow by example how to hit on a young woman he pines for (a sequence that would win Buster Keaton's approval). Or the fey little wave that the Colonel gives to Dina as the troupe departs the next day for the right town. Dina, who seems to be an equal opportunity lover, aims her charms first at the Colonel, later at Khaled, with more success. The film not only works on a light comedic level, it also speaks volumes about the boredom and cultural isolation of rural Israelis, who seem entirely left behind from the “progress” in urban areas. This is one of those occasional films that you hope won't end, but alas it does, and in under 90 minutes at that. Sigh.
Mr. Kolirin, who was raised in Israel, remembers family visits to small, dusty, forsaken rural towns like this one. For political reasons, Egyptian actors could not be cast as his bandsmen. Thus three of the eight are Israeli Jews (including Sasson Gabai), and the others are Palestinians. Palestinians are OK, Egyptians not? Go figure. Also, the film has had only limited screenings in Israel and none in any Arab state. Nevertheless, Band's Visit received Israeli film academy awards for best director and best screenplay; the film also has won awards from such diverse venues as Cannes, the European Film Awards, and festivals in Montreal, Munich, Sarajevo, Tokyo, Warsaw and Zurich. (In Arabic, English & a small amount of Hebrew – too limited an amount for the film to qualify as Israel’s entry for a best foreign film Oscar.) Grade: A- (02/07/08)
We meet Lieutenant Liraz (Oshri Cohen), a surly but resourceful maverick, ultraloyal to his men: Oshri (Eli Altonio), Koris (Itay Tiran), Shpitzer (Arthur Perzev) and Meir (Danny Zahavi), among others. (A significant problem for viewers of this film is the difficulty in sorting out and keeping straight just who is whom among the men, since they all wear hats and their faces are typically cast in shadows. I’m still not entirely sure of everyone’s identity.) Thingsget nasty right away when Ziv Faran (Ohad Knoller), a bomb specialist called in to neutralize a roadside IED, is killed while trying to defuse the bomb. It gets worse after that, as Hezbollah guerillas begin to use state-of-the-art Russian missiles (probably acquired through Syria, though we aren’t told this) against the IDF occupiers, so the rebels can claim responsibility for Israel’s withdrawal (which in fact was months in the planning and unrelated to any new Hezbollah offensive).
The story is a grim one of besieged soldiers whose common peril intensifies their intimacy. In that sense, the narrative is closely parallel to that in Clint Eastwood’s recent Letters From Iwo Jima, about the Japanese experience of the U.S. invasion of that infamous island stronghold. We learn that the bloody occupation of Beaufort in 1982 was a strategically unnecessary mission, one that in fact had been called off by IDF commanders at the last minute, though the message never got through to the front line troops (the “fog of war” revisited). In one of the more poignant scenes, we witness the battle hardened Lt. Liraz suddenly paralysed, overcome with terror and pain, as he watches one of his closest buddies wounded by shrapnel. In another, some of the soldiers are huddled around a large screen TV watching a news interview with Ziv Faran’s father, Amox (Ami Weinberg), a war hero himself. The elder Faran, grief stricken over his son’s death, speaks pensively of his regret that he did not better prepare his son for life. How? the interviewer asks. 'By teaching him more about the importance of fear,' Faran replies. (In Hebrew). Grade: B+ (02/16/08)
BLESSED BY FIRE (Iluminados por el fuego – Enlightened by Fire) (Tristán Bauer, Argentina/Spain, 2005, 100 m.). Incredibly powerful war story about Agentinian lives shattered in the long wake of the debacle known as the Falklands War (1982). Longer review to follow. (In Spanish & English) Grade: B+ (02/21/07)
BOB MARLEY & FRIENDS (Saul Swimmer, US, 2005, 94 m.). Biodoc in memory of Marley, on the 25 th anniversary of his untimely death in 1981, of malignant melanoma, at the age of 36. the film features long musical cuts, interspersed with archival footage and voiceover narration to fill in factual, autobiographical material as needed. The filmmakers succeed in achieving a proper balance between telling Marley’s story while at the same time honoring his music in the best possible way, which is by playing it, unlike so many other films of its ilk that are so crammed with talking heads that the music is crowded out (for example, another film in this year’s NWFC Reel Music series, on Harry Nilsson).
There is one performance sequence that is especially gorgeous visually. This segment was obviously made on a high quality sound recording studio set designed for filming purposes as well. It features several splendid musicians with Marley, has no audience, and photographs the musicians against backgrounds of subtly lit walls cast in earthy hues of the yellow-orange-rust-brown spectrum. This sequence is sublime, poetic in the best sense. Several other contemporary musicians also perform reggae numbers (Marley’s songs, others) under varying audiovisual circumstances. Most are fine, and one near the end, featuring Peter Tosh gyrating in flowing yellow-gold robes, is breathtakingly surreal.
Not every number succeeds like these. In mid-film, there is a long number by Ky-Mani Marley that should have been left on the cutting room floor. The film was made by the veteran music film director Saul Swimmer, who made the movie of the legendary Concert for Bangladesh in 1972. The “cast” of musicians includes, besides Marley himself, Tosh, Seal, Ky-Mani Marley, Stephen Marley, Ziggy Marley & The Melody Makers, Wyclef Jean, Lauren Hill, Third World, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman (whose few moments singing “Redemption Songs,” with a group that includes Sting and Springsteen, are the brightest highlight next to numbers featureing Bob Marley himself), Cat Coore, and Dubmatique . One of the better biodocs of a popular musician I’ve seen. Grade: A- (Seen at the NWFC's Reel Music series, 01/06/07)
BORN IN THE USSR: 21 UP (Sergei Miroshnichenko, Russia, 2005, 90 m). This is the third in a Russian series, modeled after Michael Apted’s acclaimed British “Up Series,” tracking Soviet children from age 7 forward. I have not seen the first two films in this Russian series (titled 7 Up and 14 Up), though footage from both is intercut with new material filmed in 2003 for the present film, as in the Apted series. Mr. Miroshnichenko, who was present for this screening, told us that Apted has served as a consultant for his project, and that he has had financial backing from Granada TV, the British company that has backed Apted’s “Up Series” through the years.
Twenty 7-year old Soviet kids were originally selected for 7 up, shot in 1989. Since then the Soviet Union has broken up, of course, and these subjects now live in 8 different countries. Granada TV would only fund sufficient work to keep up with 10 of the 20 kids for a production of 21 Up that was broadcast on British TV in 2005. But in fairness to his subjects, Miroshnichenko made a 6 hour film for Russian TV that covered all 20 of them. For American audiences he has made two 90-minute films, each one covering 10 of the subjects. He screened the first part this evening, which marks the American premiere of his 21 Up.
Though it will take years - and a longer series of glimpses into the lives of these people as they mature - to judge the overall merit of this series, one can say that the filmcraft is arguably better in this movie than any of the Apted films. The latter generally are limited to rather static interviews, with minimal action, while Miroshnichenko brings a far more action-oriented approach, showing his subjects in longer segments in which they are vigorously engaged in activities that are authentic to them, e.g., boxing, working aboard ship or in a restaurant, studying with other students, working in a beauty salon, and the like. Sound quality is better as well. All this makes for a lively, highly watchable production. The editing is also superior to the early British “Up” films. Though not always consistent, Miroshnichenko tends to stick with one individual at a time, a more successful approach than the thematic one, in which each subject responds to a particular question, e.g., about marriage. (Apted has also come around to organizing his material by individual subject in his most recent production, 49 Up.)
It isn’t clear to me whether Miroshnichenko himself conducts all or even any of the interviews, as Apted has done through the years. Nor are all the questions given to us. The sampling is selective, and perhaps suffers further from subtitles. But with these limitations in mind, it is fair to say that the skill of the interviewer(s) in this film is superior to the “early Apted.” Apted himself has gotten better through the years, as he has increasingly appreciated that the important overarching themes of his subjects’ lives are psychological and interpersonal, not socioeconomic. More on this below.)
Most of the subjects depicted in this film are, at 21, concerned with gaining financial independence – making a living – though a few are pursuing higher education. There are, of course, no upper class kids to serve as counterparts for more privileged British youth, though one young Russian man has a grandmother whose status as a diplomat gives him privileges where he lives and studies in Strasbourg. He alone speaks of the poverty of most Russians, and his acute awareness of his more affluent status. One young woman has had an episode of what is vaguely referred to as “mental illness.” At 21 she’s a serious, well spoken young woman, the only one to talk with much introspective candor. Most of the young men are out for a good time and are far from settling down. Marriage seems quite a ways off for these young adults
Seeing evidence of materialistic preoccupations among several of the subjects (one young woman lusts after a pricey automobile as her chief goal in life), one might be tempted to compare these people to the subjects in the British series, who are for the most part rather modest in their materialistic pursuits, but that would be a mistake. The Brits not only come from a different culture but from an earlier generation as well. The acquisitiveness of these Russian young adults is not so very different from the preoccupations of Americans and Britons of their own, more recent, generation, most likely displaying what epidemiologists call cohort, or generational, effects.
Whereas Michael Apted has allowed his perspective to shift from socioeconomic and cultural themes to a more individualistic psychological point of reference since his 21 Up, Miroshnichenko says that his goal is to remain focused on cultural concerns, using his subjects to illustrate broader issues, i.e., events and forces that have occurred in the wake of the breakup of the USSR. (In Russian with English subtitles and narration) Grade: B+ (Seen at the Mellon Symposium on “Understanding Russian Culture Through Film,” Reed College, 03/30/07)
He meets various people over the next weeks, takes a lover, relaxes. But there are unsettling aspects to his new life, for that is what it appears to be. Alcohol no longer makes him or anyone high. Food looks great but has little flavor. Even sex is bland though easily available. The women he takes up with seem more interested in the quarters they live in, and his ability to provide for them materially, than they are in him. Horrid events occur: he slices off his finger in a paper cutter. He sees a suicidal man, now dead, impaled on a sharp edged wrought iron fence. People seem to take such occurrences in stride, showing little or no affect. There are uniformed attendants in gray blue jumpsuits driving gray blue minivans, who calmly, mutely service people like these. When they take Andreas home and he unwraps the dressing from the stump of his finger he finds it (magically) whole again, without a trace of trauma. Hmmmmm.
Things go on like this. Andreas tries suicide again in the local subway but, while battered terribly (he’s hit and dragged by three different trains through the night), he is able to walk away. Bloodied and looking like a cadaver when he returns to his lover’s house, she merely smiles and mentions they have been invited to friends’ for dinner later in the week. Hmmmmm. Later he discovers an underground shaft that appears to lead to another world. He and an associate blast a tunnel ubt, just short of his goal of escape from this bizarre dystopia, the men in gray blue arrive, drag the two away, seal up the tunnel, but immediately release the men without incarceration, trial or any other punishment than enforcement of their unwanted stay in this odd paradise.
But Andreas continues to be bothersome. He acts unhappy, which turns out to be the worst offense here, one that in time leads him to be expelled from the community. He’s taken back to the desert, forced into the cargo bay of the bus, and driven away. At some point the bus stops, Andreas kicks the door open, and disappears into a white, featureless expanse marked by howling winds, like the middle of a blizzard. The bus pulls away, the screen fades to final darkness. There you have it. I strongly disliked the film, though it is well crafted, the story does hang together and its protagonist is a mildly interesting character. This film will certainly be a candidate for my annual Metaphysical Melange Award. What we seem to have here is purgatory, or hell, or heaven, a nether world where you go after death but where, unlike Sartre’s formulation, there is indeed an exit. (In Norwegian) Grade: C (02/2007)
BREACH (Billy Ray, US, 2007, 110 m.). Super taut, razor edged docudrama about Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), the FBI higher-up whose betrayals to the USSR represent the worst breach in the history of US national security, probably accounting for the deaths of at least 50 operatives worldwide, including several key Russian spies that had been “turned” by US agents. Cooper offers a bravura lead performance as the infinitely complex Hanssen, a devout Roman Catholic family man and seemingly squeaky clean senior agent whose scrupulosity was legendary. Last man in the agency you’d expect to be a traitor or a major dabbler in hard porn, for that matter. But there it is. Cooper solidifies his reputation here as one of our finest screen actors.
Ryan Phillippe surprises in his quiet, mannerly yet resourceful turn as Eric O’Neill, an agent assigned to gain Hanssen’s confidence and get the goods on him, hard evidence in the form of secret documents intended by Hanssen to go to his Soviet handlers. Though it is inaccurate that O’Neill was an agent – he was a factotum untrained in undercover work – Phillippe’s interpretation of a young man in over his head is authentic. Remarkable performance by Phillippe, even better than his excellent turn in Flags of Our Fathers. Cooper and Phillippe together conjure one degree of suspense upon another. It's a spellbinding game of cat and mouse. With a terrific supporting cast including Laura Linney, Kathleen Quinlan, Dennis Haysbert, Bruce Davison and Caroline Dhavernas. Billy Ray, primarily a screenwriter, wrote this story and directs here for only the second time. He’s a talent to watch. Grade: B+ (03/06/07)
CANVAS (Joseph Greco, US, 2006, 101 m.). SPOILER ALERT! This debut feature film by writer-director Joseph Greco dramatizes the impact of mental illness on the family. Mary Marino (Marcia Gay Harden) suffered the onset of a schizophrenic disorder in her early 40s, a couple years before the film’s story begins, and her illness has made life very difficult for her, her husband John (Joe Pantoliano), and their 10 year old son Chris (Devon Gearhart). Ms. Harden is quite convincing. She gets the furtive, doubting look of a distrustful, paranoid patient. She has emotional displays that are by turns inappropriately silly, sad or enraged. She is capable of socially disruptive, even dangerous, behavior. She makes shadowy references to outside forces that may have wired the house and are spying on everyone. She worries obsessively about her son’s safety. She hears voices that cause her acute psychic pain, voices she can ward off or at least dampen by painting or running a water tap. She’s ambivalent about treatment and often noncompliant with medications. A particularly disruptive episode, one that causes commotion in the neighborhood, brings the police and Mary’s readmission to the state mental hospital for extended care. John and Chris must carry on without her, and they do.
What’s special about this film is it’s central focus not on Mary and her illness but on the impact she has on her family. In fact, the camera in Canvas is directed more to John and Chris than to Mary. John is a good but simple man who works with his hands, a foreman for a house building crew employed by a developer. He tries to do right by Mary and Chris, but his coping skills are limited and often sorely tested, and he can react blindly at times out of his frustration. The role of John, wonderfully managed by Pantoliano, is reminiscent of Peter Falk’s character Nick, the frantic, bumbling yet obviously caring husband of a psychotic woman, in John Cassavetes’ film, A Woman Under the Influence. It’s good to see Pantoliano playing a sympathetic character for a change, not the usual nasty fellow we know from his Teddy in Memento or Ralphie Cifaretto in The Sopranos.
Ten year old Devon Gearhart is a delight. He is highly photogenic: he could be Uma Thurman’s kid brother. He not only has charm, but conveys a remarkably broad range of emotional responses – joy, wonder, embarrassment, anger, sadness – that seem entirely natural and authentic. We see and feel Chris’s extreme embarrassment when Mary rushes aboard a school bus to embrace him and reassure herself that he is safe. When Chris spends his birthday at an amusement park with friends, Mary arrives unannounced and uninvited with a birthday cake to crash the kids-only party. Chris takes abuse from his peers in the aftermath of such episodes: they taunt him about his crazy mother. He begins skipping classes as a result. Chris and John are both put to pain when Mary erupts in the waiting area of a restaurant, and on another occasion when she wildly dashes outdoors in a rainstorm and creates a flap.
There is a brief bedroom scene while Mary is home on pass from the hospital, when lovemaking is interrupted because Mary is frightened of her skin being exposed and must peek through the drapes to be sure no one outside is watching. It is subtly made clear that her preoccupations have stifled John’s arousal, and we can imagine this has happened before. We also share times of nostalgic reminiscence and bereavement, when Chris or John pauses, tearfully, to recall happier times with Mary, before her illness, and mourns the loss of the wife and mother they once knew.
Narrative films about persons suffering from severe mental illness tend to focus, more or less exclusively, on the dramatic conduct of the impaired individual. We see this in recent good movies about persons with schizophrenia, like Clean, Shaven and Spider. Even the popular movie, A Beautiful Mind, which does clearly present the subtext of John Nash’s wife’s travails in the wake of his schizophrenic illness, gives center stage to Nash and his symptoms, not his family. Benny and Joon, a fluffy romantic comedy about a psychotic woman, her caretaker brother, and an interloper who falls in love with Joon, does not deal honestly with the issue of mental illness, much less with the real toll the disorder so often takes on family members. Canvas does a better job of focusing on the family than any film I can recall since Cassavetes’ Woman Under, released over 30 years ago.
The ending is somewhat ambiguous. John and Chris have cemented a mutually supportive relationship, while Mary is away in the hospital, by building a sailboat together, in part because John hopes to recapture the life he and Mary knew when they were young, a life that revolved around sailing (the film is set in a seaside town, Hollywood, Florida, on the Atlantic Coast north of Miami). By the time the boat is finished, and the fellows invite Mary to join them on its maiden voyage, she is still in the hospital and quite symptomatic, hearing voices and experiencing difficult mood swings. Mary does, however, muster enough insight to realize that if she accepts the invitation, her behavior could deteriorate and spoil the day for her loved ones. So she declines to go along.
The voyage is a huge success: we can feel and see the bonding that occurs between father and son. Mary’s decision was a good one. The next scene at first glance seems to show Mary with John and Chris aboard the boat, perhaps on another outing soon after the first. Instead, in an inspired sight gag, the boat is revealed to be resting atop a trailer being pulled around the hospital parking lot. Mary is obviously contented, relaxed, at peace. Her husband and son are close by and also happy. It is the picture of a normal family at play, and these final images conjure the impression that Mary has turned a positive corner on the road toward health.
The fact that the film has a happy, hopeful ending does not trouble me. It is perfectly plausible for a person suffering from schizophrenia to make significant strides toward regaining normal emotional experience and behavioral self control, with effective treatment. A splendid example of such an outcome can be seen in Out of the Shadow, Susan Smiley’s recent documentary account of her schizophrenic mother’s odyssey. My concern is that viewers of Canvas who are uninformed about schizophrenia might leap to the conclusion that Mary has made great strides toward recovery in a very brief time, and attribute her improvement to the loving, inclusive attitudes of her family, rather than to proper psychiatric treatment. (On first viewing I myself had such a take; I had to see the film a second time to gain critical perspective.)
Of course we know that good professional care and positive family support are not mutually exclusive influences for the better: they serve synergistically to aid recovery. The ambiguity at the end notwithstanding, Canvas offers a uniquely insightful, compassionate perspective about mental illness within the context of the family. It deepens our appreciation for families who must carry on their own lives while enduring heartaches and a great sense of loss when their afflicted loved ones undergo radical disruptions of their psychological integrity and capacity to return their love. Grade: B+ (01/11 and 01/16/07).
CARAMEL (Sukkar banat) (Nadine Labaki, Lebanon/France, 2007, 95 m.). A delightful, if formulaic, romantic comedy. Four women who are close friends deal with life and love in their separate ways. Three of them work together in a Beirut beauty salon (called Si Belle, though the “B” on the sign out front has come loose and hangs upside down throughout the film, perhaps a hint of lingering disorder from recent conflicts in that beleaguered city). These three are: Layale (the stunningly gorgeous Nadine Labaki in her second feature film; she also makes her debut here as a director and co-writer), who easily attracts male attention; Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri), who is about to be married; and Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), a lesbian who becomes enamored of a lovely, and willing, customer. The fourth chum is Jamale (Gisele Aouad), a fading actress who doesn’t get much work any more and spends a lot of her time in the beauty shop hoping to look younger.
Rounding out the excellent ensemble are Layale’s Aunt Rose (Sihame Hadad), who in early middle age still hopes for love, and her demented mother, Lili (Aziza Semaan). It is remarkable that Mss. Elmasri, Moukarzel, Aouad and Hadad are acting here for the first time in a feature film. Give Nadine Labaki great credit for evoking such strong, believable performances from these newcomers as well as the more experienced supporting cast.
It is easy enough to label this film a “chickflick” or to fault it for exploring familiar territory in a somewhat clichéd manner. However, according to Lebanese people who have reviewed the film on the IMDb, this movie represents a bold step forward in the quality of Lebanese cinema. Not only that: I think the characters are engaging, even endearing, for men as well as women viewers. Some have (justifiably in my view) likened Caramel to Almodóvar’s films that deal with female relationships, like All About My Mother and Volver. And, as in his films, Caramel is full of well-photographed, brightly colored sets and location shots. The production design is highly interesting: both the beauty shop andRose’s seamstress shop are furnished and decorated more like someone’s home than a commercial establishment. The film offers ample insouciant humor and a fast moving pace. The music, arranged by Khaled Mouzannar, who apparently is Ms. Labaki’s fiancé, is perfect: gentle, slow paced light melodic material that works well against the fast visual pace of the film. What’s not to like here? (In Arabic & French). Grade: B+ (01/29/08)
CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR (Mike Nichols, US, 2007, 97 m.). Superb docudrama about an American Congressman, Rep Charles Wilson (D-Texas), and his instrumental role in arranging U. S. appropriations (funds channeled clandestinely through the C.I.A.) for purchasing advanced weaponry to arm the warlords in northern Afghanistan, the mujahideen, and thus turn the tide of the Russian-Afghan War (1980-1989) in favor of the warlords, with a resulting exodus of the Russian Army. At the time many said that this was the “Soviet Union’s Vietnam.”
The script was adapted for the screen by Aaron Sorkin (writer of A Few Good Men, The American President, and the West Wing television series) from the best selling 2003 book (Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History) by the late George Crile. In a recent History Channel documentary (The True Story of Charlie Wilson, 12/22/07), Wilson himself, mujahideen leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and former commanders of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan were interviewed, and they all attest to the authenticity of this film.
Wilson (played in the film by Tom Hanks), a former Navy officer and state legislator, served in the House from 1973 to 1997. He was a notorious drinker and womanizer who nonetheless played the Congressional influence game very shrewdly, collecting numerous “IOUs,” i.e., by doing favors to help other Congressmen pass legislation they desired. By 1980 he held a key position on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, a small group which authorized funding of C.I.A. operations. At first all Wilson knew about the war was what he saw occasionally on television. Then one day a renegade, foul mouthed, loose cannon C.I.A. operative, Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), paid Wilson a visit to ask for his help in appropriating major new funding for the mujahideen, the only organized force in Afghanistan potentially capable of taking on the Russians.
Next, a wealthy and influential, politically active, right wing Christian fundamentalist socialite, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), summoned Wilson home to Texas to work on him about Afghanistan. She herself by this point had already been an honorary consul to Pakistan and Morocco. Avrakotos arranged for Wilson and Herring to join him on a visit to displaced Afghan refugee camps, and, as a result of this experience, Wilson was moved to champion the Afghan cause. Between 1980 and 1984 he succeeded in arranging $500 million in appropriations for advanced weaponry, including ground-to-air heat seeking anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank weapons, for the Afghan militias. This sum was matched by Saudi Arabia. (The weapons had to be procured from non-U.S. sources to cover the covert nature of this aid.)
All of these events, from Wilson’s first awareness of the war while watching the TV news one evening in 1980, to the Russian retreat in 1989, are covered in the film, which is very fast-paced. The film has been faulted for portraying the turnabout in the war in an overly simplified, Hollywoodesque manner, the mujahideen seen to be shifting from badly beaten disarray to total dominance as if overnight. While this is a legitimate criticism, this issue bears little influence on the overall brilliance of the film’s story.
Nichols, known as an "actor's director," evokes uniformly good performances from everyone. Hanks, Roberts and Hoffman each perform very convincingly. (The always hard working Hoffman, who has been nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his turn here, was very busy in 2007, also giving outstanding performances in The Savages and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.) Among other supporting players, Amy Adams (Junebug, Enchanted) as Wilson’s administrative assistant, Om Puri, as the tough president of Pakistan, and Ned Beatty, as the gruff Chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, stand out.
Add: Since 1997, Wilson, now 74, has been a busy fellow. He became a Washington lobbyist for Pakistan at a reported $30 thousand per month, replacing Jack Abramoff. In 1999 he was married, for the first time, to a former ballerina he had first met in 1980. In September, 2007, after two years on the waiting list, he received a heart transplant. (In Dari, Arabic, Russian & English) Grade: A- (01/22/08)
CHASIN’ GUS’ GHOST (Todd Kwait, US, 2007, 99 m.). In his debut as a film writer/director, Todd Kwait, a 48 year old lawyer by training, has created the definitive jug band music documentary! He has blended archival and contemporary performance footage, occasional amusing animated cartoon sequences, and an interesting variety of talking heads to tell the story of the history and present state of the art of jug band performance. He holds these bits and pieces together with a pleasant narrative voiceover in which he appears to be on a road trip seeking the roots of jug band music throughout Tennessee and Mississippi.
Through the comments of folks like John Sebastian, David Grisman, Geoff Muldauer, Bob Weir, Jim Kweskin, Maria Muldauer, Delmark Goldfarb, Samuel Charters, Eric Darling, Sule Greg Wilson, Charlie Musselwhite and the late Fritz Richmond, among others. Kwait traces the history of jug music back to its seminal performers: people like Yank Rashel, Sleepy John Estes, Noah Lewis, William Shade and, especially, Gus Cannon, who is considered the father of this musical genre and whose name is part of the film’s title.
Balanced next to this walk down memory lane, the contemporary jug music scene is also covered well. Sule Greg Wilson and his African American band, Sankofa Strings, seek to reintroduce the roots music of this genre. We travel with Kwait, Sebastian, Queskin and Geoff Muldauer to the 2006 Yokahama Jug Band Festival, and to a concert in Tokyo honoring Fritz Richmond, where we hear the popular Japanese groups, the Southern Chefs (dressed in white chefs’ attire) and Mad Words, and learn that the future of this music may rest with the Japanese more than with Americans.
As is the case for any music documentary, I think it is always desirable to include some fully performed songs. Most here are, regrettably, cut short. Adding another 10-15 minutes to the film’s length would have allowed sufficient time for a several more full numbers. Still, it’s hats off to Todd Kwait, who has turned in a highly respectable first effort in a film dedicated to Fritz Richmond, whose unique washtub bass now rests in the Smithsonian. Grade B+ (Seen in the NWFC "Reel Music" Series, 01/29/08)
Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley's response to the impending demonstrations was to call in the Illinois National Guard and train Chicago police officers in aggressive riot control techniques. As a result, news commentator Walter Cronkite said, just beforehand, that "the Democratic National Convention is beginning soon...in a police state." Although the film is decidedly sympathetic to the defendants and their cause, this slant on matters is entirely justified by the outcome of subsequent appeals that overturned every conviction arising from this trial, as well as Bobby Seale’s and the defense attorneys' trials. (For the record, the “Chicago Eight” were: Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Seale and Lee Weiner. Judge Hoffman ordered a separate trial for Seale, leaving the “Chicago Seven.” The other two individuals rounding out the “10” were the lead defense attorney, William Kunstler, and assistant attorney, Leonard Weinglass, both of whom were convicted by Judge Hoffman of contempt of court. For more, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_Seven ). The animated trial sequences were prepared by Switch VFX and Yowza, both under the direction of Joao G. Amorim. Excellent editing was accomplished by Stuart Levy. Voices were those of Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, Liev Schreiber, James Urbaniak and Jeffrey Wright, among others. Winner, Silver Hugo for Best Documentary, at the 2007 Chicago IFF. Grade: A- (02/04/08).
Add: Weiner and Froines were acquitted from conspiracy-to-start-riot charges, though they were convicted of making incendiary devices ("stink bombs”). Rubin became a successful businessman and investor. Abbie Hoffman continued his radical theatrical approach to social protestation. He died at age 52 in 1989, apparently from a suicidal drug overdose. He had been diagnosed as bipolar in 1980 and kept copious notes on his moods. Of the 7 surviving protest leaders at the time, only Rubin and Hayden attended Hoffman's funeral. Rubin himself died at age 56 in 1994 as the result of injuries sustained when, as a pedestrian, he was hit by a car. David Dellinger continued as a protester of war and free trade agreements, among other issues, until his death at 88 in 2004. William Kunstler died in 1995 at age 76; earlier that year he had spoken out against the death penalty. Except for Hoffman, Rubin, Kunstler and Dellinger, the other principals are still living. Davis is a venture capitalist and lectures on meditation and self-awareness. Hayden had a successful career as a California state senator; more recently he has taught college courses and serves on the advisory board of Progressive Democrats of America. Seale sponsors youth education projects and lectures together with his wife, also a former BPP member. Weiner continues to be an activist in various social causes. Froines became a professor of toxicology at UCLA. Leonard Weinglass most recently defended the "Cuban Five" and Mumia Abu-Jamal.
CHRONICLE OF AN ESCAPE (Crónica de una fuga) (Adrián Caetano, Argentina, 2006, 103 m.). Overused as it may be, I can’t think of a better description of how I experienced this oppressive, taut docudrama than to say it was gut wrenching in the extreme. Uruguayan director Caetano (who made the excellent 2001 feature, Bolivia) tells the true story of the arrest, four month long detention and torture of four young members of the Argentinian resistance, captured in late 1977, as the Military junta regime was tightening its sadistic grip on the nation. Brilliant cast, led by Rodrigo De la Serna (Motorcycle Diaries). Viewers are spared direct witnessing of most of the torture, but nonetheless you are kept intensely involved in this ordeal. (In Spanish) Grade: A- (02/13/07)
THE CITRILLO’S TURNS (Las Vueltas del Citrillo) (Filipe Cazals, Mexico, 2006, 97 m.). SPOILER ALERT! This remarkable period film is gorgeously photographed and full of deeply etched characters and intimate conflicts, all set within a larger context of sociopolitical developments in pre-revolutionary Mexico. It is 1903, the 19 th year of the long, harshly repressive regime of Porfirio Diaz, who had through colossal will and terrible force staunched economic hemorrhaging and suppressed civil chaos that had ruined Mexico for decades beforehand. Diaz accomplished these things at a terrible cost in terms of slaughtering his opponents, making Mexico financially more dependent than ever upon U.S. capital, and engendering even greater poverty in a land already suffering from a gross imbalance in the distribution of wealth. Vuelta means ‘turn,’ which in this story means a visit to the local pulqueria to down a few pints of the peasants’ drink, pulque, a potent, milky brew fermented from the agave plant. But in a possibly intentional pun, vuelta, which also literally means ‘revolution’ (e.g., the revolutions of an electric fan), could refer to the fact that this film is about conditions that foreshadowed, indeed inspired, the Mexican Revolution that would begin 7 years later.
The story principally concerns three soldiers and two women, both prostitutes. We come to know each quite well, through good scripting, good acting and portrait-like camerawork that captures each character at close range throughout the movie. The pivotal character is the Sergeant, Sargento Collazo (Damián Alcázar). He has brought his unit to a particular town where he is to participate as the godfather in the baptism of an infant, Melba’s child. Melba (Vanessa Bauche), a fierce, self-possessed woman who is one of the prostitutes, is a long time friend of the Sergeant’s, and, we may assume, they were once either lovers or sexually paired at a brothel. The Sergeant’s two main aides are the hay fever consumed, sneezy Corporal Cabo Aboytes (Jorge Zárate), a classic ‘yes man’ gofer for the Sergeant, and a new recruit, Private José Isabel (José Maria Yazpik), who is Aboytes’s polar opposite. José is proud, arrogant, assertive to a point just short of insubordination, and a braggart to boot, boasting especially of his lover’s prowess, enhanced by his liberal use of weed. Rounding out the quintet of principals is Brigida (Giovanna Zacarias), the other prostitute, who is in several respects the polar opposite of Melba. Where Melba is generous, Brigida is selfish; where Melba has some sense of higher purpose, Brigida seems content to live from moment to moment in a drunken state of giddy intoxication.
Action in the film derives in part from the unfolding of current events among the five principals, and in equal measure from stories told during drinking “turns” in a tavern, stories we viewers experience as flashbacks, involving other colorful, often amusing characters. As in the stories of Garcia Marquez or Carlos Fuentes, the boundary between the living and the dead here is a porous one. A dead man from one of the barroom tales welcomes José after his execution by firing squad, and later the pair return to the present to mix it up with the living. Cazals creates a deliciously wry sight gag at the end by having the dead transported in classic form down a river, conveyed not in some conventional shadowy vessel, but in one of the gaudily festooned pleasure boats at Xochimilco. It’s name: “La Mala Vida.”
It was most fortunate – and in some respects indispensible – to have Mr. Cazals present for this screening. He was on hand to participate in “Cine-Lit VI,” an international conference on Hispanic film and literature, held during PIFF at Portland State University every three years. He made useful introductory remarks, gave a lengthy Q & A, and, afterward, I was able to have a brief conversation with him one-on-one. Cazals, a politically sophisticated intellectual, is one of the leading filmakers of his generation in Mexico (this is his 40 th film as director, and the 12 th that he has also written). He was born in 1937, in the Basque village of Guéthary, France, in the Pyrénnées, to Spanish parents who had fled from Franco during the early days of the Spanish Civil War. His family, like many thousands of Spanish Republicans and Communists, eventually immigrated to Mexico, where his childhood years were spent in Zapopan, a Guadalajaran suburb, and later in Mexico City.
Like a good university professor, Cazals makes demands upon his audiences. He expects the viewer to show up at the theater equipped with an understanding of the historical and political context of the times, and the ‘rules of the game’ for civil and military conduct during the Porfiriana (the name coined for Diaz’s 27 year-long second presidency). He assumes that you already know that in Mexico in that time, having enough food to stave off starvation was far more important than advancing some political ideology, a situation like that in southern Italy in the 1930s, described so well by Ignazio Silone in his classic 1937 novel, “Bread and Wine.”
The whole enterprise fairly oozes with Brechtian allegorical riffs. The name of the infant to be baptized is Doctrino, an allusion to the fact that as early as 1903 political awareness was barely nascent, just dawning among the peasantry, who by then were sure of only one thing: that their lives were miserable. Aboytes stands for the sort of underclass type that Porfirio Diaz would have wished to cultivate: men who are unthinking, loyal, reflexively obedient to the regime. The uppity José, on the other hand, delights in breaking the law (smoking marijuana), seducing every woman in sight, and flaunting authority. Brimming with youthful insouciance, full of himself, José is as indifferent to the suffering around him as he is to authority. His very nature makes him subversive to everybody, an enemy of both the state and the peasantry. Small wonder that the Sergeant, a richly complex fellow who at once represents Diaz’s insistence on law and order and compassion for the poor, is virtually compelled to exterminate the younger man. Never mind that this pair – José and the Sergeant – had opened the film in a sequence in which, side by side, they are robbing and killing unarmed but obviously prosperous citizens.
The Sergeant and Melba are far more convoluted characters than the others and perhaps embody Cazals’s sense of the contradictory qualities that made up successful Mexican revolutionaries: toughness and compassion; willingness to ruthlessly attack opponents while tenderly safeguarding loved ones and compatriots; a bent toward generously supporting the poor and murderously plundering the privileged. Melba, like the Sergeant, is capable of robbing and killing a “blind” merchant, a representative of the bourgeoisie that prospered during the Porfiriana, at the expense of the peasants. Melba’s feelings toward the Sergeant are sharply ambivalent. Standing for the soul of the common people, the interests of the motherland, she chooses this strong, proud man to be godfather to Doctrino. She resents his predatory overtures, his Porfirianistic sense of entitlement to her sexual favors, yet she is quite willing to share her charms if he will simply ask in a civil manner rather than make demands. She is appealing to the softer and more democratic side of this complicated man, this contradictory national peasant character.
Some aspects of the story remain puzzling. What does Brigida stand for? She seems to embody a particularly ineffectual response to underclass woes, the passivity of those who respond to their misery not by attempting to change conditions but by escaping from their pain by numbing it with alcohol, drugs and other addictive habits. (Marx’s famous statement that “religion is the opium of the people” comes to mind here.) The most significant conundrum is José’s unrepentant stance. Cazals sets up all the conditions one would expect for such a character to seek and gain redemption for his narcissistic, destructive behavior, even bringing José back from the grave for what I expected to be a clear shot at putting things right. No way, José. I asked Mr. Cazals about this failure of redemption, and he warmed to the task of setting me straight. “You see,” he said, “nothing is important, nothing, not even redemption, when a man is starving. The only thing that matters then is food.” I grasp his point, but this was not self evident watching the movie. Of course there may have been clues to this interpretation in the dialogue, signifiers that I missed because of not being able to follow along in Spanish.
This is a lyrical, visually grand, but highly challenging film. Cazals garnered Best Director Awards at the 2005 Havana Festival of New Latin American Cinema and The 2006 Ariels (Mexico’s Oscars). Variety’s Eddie Cockrell calls the film “a well made but nearly impenetrable drama.” Well, it’s true that you do need to know your stuff about Mexican history of the period, and few Americans qualify. One wonders what proportion even of Mexicans learn this history and thus would find this story comprehensible on all levels. Even then, without Cazals around as a guide, the richness of the characters and story might not come through as well. Citrillo is a good candidate for release in the U.S., not for theatrical screenings but as a DVD, with an introduction by Cazals and a follow-up interview with him, reproducing the conditions in which I was lucky enough to see this film. By the way, his last comment to me was that the story in this film is entirely relevant to conditions in Mexico today, where 45 million people (40% of the population) continue to live in severe poverty. (In Spanish) Grade: B+ (02/24/07)
A COMEDY OF POWER (L’Ivresse du pouvoir) (Claude Chabrol, France/Germany, 2006, 110 m.). Isabelle Huppert plays a hard boiled federal judge who is dead set on busting a sophisticated international ring of business and government officials that moves money around clandestinely to influence world geopolitics in the latest film by masterful auteur Chabrol. (In French) Grade: B+ (02/15/07)
CONTROL (Anton Corbijn, UK/US/others, 2007, 121 m.). SPOILER ALERT! An accomplished biopic about the short life and times of British rocker Ian Curtis, from Macclesfield, UK, a small city south of Manchester. Curtis came to fame as a co-founder (in 1977), vocalist and lyricist for the post-punk band, Joy Division (whose two albums, “Unknown Pleasures” and “Closer” were big hits). The band’s success followed their discovery by Manchester TV personality and pop music promoter, Tony Wilson. Curtis married Deborah while in his late teens, and the couple had a young daughter.
The rigors of touring and popularity took their toll on Curtis, who, like so many young musicians frequently on the road, gradually became estranged from Deborah and at the same time enamored with a reporter, Annik Honoré, with whom he struck up an affair. Meanwhile, following a grand mal seizure, he was diagnosed with epilepsy, which was only partially controlled by anticonvulsant medications that, in any case, he took sporadically. He continued to have seizures, even during musical performances. He was also prone to bouts of depression. In 1979, on the evening before the band’s scheduled departure for their first U.S. tour, Curtis hanged himself, at the age of 23. By then not only was his epilepsy out of control, but every other aspect of his life as well.
Shot in slightly grainy black & white, the film has the feel of an old music documentary, like D.A. Pennebaker's and Murray Lerner's films of the early Dylan. The film covers Curtis's life from high school days until his death. It is intelligently blended, moving between biographical events and performances. There are no talking heads. The screenplay was adapted by Matt Greenhalgh from Deborah Curtis’s biography of Ian, “Touching From a Distance.” Ms. Curtis also co-produced the film. Anton Corbijn is a veteran director of pop music documentaries, dating back to 1988 (featuring Depeche Mode, U2, Nirvana and Metallica, among others). The lead actors are uniformly good: Sam Riley as Ian, Samantha Morton as Deborah, Alexandra Maria Lara as Annik, Craig Parkinson as Tony Wilson, and Toby Kebbell as the band’s confrontative manager, Rob Gretton. I don't have a clue whether Riley's performance style was an emulation of Curtis's, but he certainly has a distinctive way of investing each of his songs with great emotional intensity and, between numbers, some unusual swinging arm movements as if he were speedwalking in place.
The film has won many awards, including several at the British Independent Film Awards (best film, best director, best supporting actor [Kebbell], and most promising newcomer [Sam Riley]). Also: several awards at Cannes; the Chicago IFF (best actor [Riley], best screenplay); the Edinburgh IFF (best British performance [Riley], best British first feature film); and the Hamburg Film Festival (best film). Grade B+ (01/24/08)
The story, based on a book by one of the surviving members of the team, Adolf Burger, is presented with a high level of suspense. We share the prisoners’ apprehension, not knowing what fate lies in store for them from one day to the next. Markovics is outstanding as the lean, tough criminal whose sole motivation is survival, even if this means contributing to an effort that supports Nazi plans. Others, even the Nazi supervisor of the counterfeiting project, appear at times to be on higher moral ground than Sally. The photography, editing and production design are excellent. Austria’s entry in the best foreign film Oscar nominations. (In German) Grade: B+ (01/28/08).
Add: On February 24, this film won the 2008 Oscar for best foreign language film.
CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia) (Zhang Yimou, Hong Kong/China, 2006, 114 m.). Some time ago, acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou apparently became bored of making intimate films about relationships (e.g., The Red Lantern, To Live, The Road Home, Not One Less) and instead found himself drawn to the martial arts and, increasingly, Cecil B. DeMille-style spectacle. First came Hero (2002) with some splendid martial arts scenes amidst a relatively intimate (but not very engaging) narrative; then House of Flying Daggers (2004), with a better action tempo and a huge cast of extras a la DeMille. Now we get Curse, with even larger, more grandiose crowd scenes: literally hordes of combatants filling vast fields and courtyards, not to mention long lines and processions of comely young women with bosoms pushed high to reveal at times perilous degrees of all but naked breasts.
The plot is complicated, though its execution is at times plain silly. Set in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), this story of palace intrigue is colored by themes of clandestine love, murder, incest, sibling rivalry and shame. The grand battles, which break out at nearly every turn, are a ho-hum aspect of the film. Better than that are the all-too-infrequent martial arts sequences. Better than that is the gorgeous production design, with expansive rooms and long hallways decked out in profuse, arrestingly vivid colors. The cast, led by Gong Li as the Empress Phoenix, perform well enough. This is a decent film, but I miss Zhang’s more intimate dramas of years past. (In Mandarin) Grade: B- (01/21/08)
THE DARJEELING LIMITED (Wes Anderson, US, 2007, 91 m.). Three American brothers – the Whitmans: Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) - have not spoken to each other in a year. But they agree to Francis’s plan that they meet in India and journey across the country by train in search of their eccentric mother (Anjelica Huston), who has taken orders in a remote Catholic monastery. Along the way they revitalize their relations with each other and enjoy some entertaining adventures. However, their quest veers off course thanks to various unforeseen doings, involving such items as over-the-counter pain killers, Indian cough syrup, and pepper spray. At one point they find themselves stranded alone in the desert with eleven suitcases, a printer, and a laminating machine. Eventually the brothers do reach their mother, who is, as they had expected, ambivalent about their unannounced visit.
This movie is a splendid comedy that, unlike so many others, keeps being funny and surprising until the end. Wilson gives his best turn here since Shanghai Noon (2000). He performs as an over-the-top controlling obsessive, dictating decisions on behalf of his brothers, who in turn acquiesce pathetically every time, undoubtedly falling into the pattern of their childhood relationships. Turns out that Francis is a chip off the old block, for his mother is every bit as much the control freak. My only frustration with this movie is that we did not see nearly enough of Anjelica Huston, whose role is barely more than a cameo. Other cameos are provided by Bill Murray and Barbet Schroeder. More prominent support comes from three excellent players: Amara Kahn, Wallace Wolodarsky and Waris Ahluwalia. Grade: B+ (12/29/07)
DAYS OF GLORY ( Indigènes ) (Rachid Bouchareb, France/Morocco/Algeria/Belgium, 2006, 120 m.). This riveting, poignant, deeply ironic docudrama tells the story of the 7th Algerian Infantry Division, a battle unit composed of Arab Algerians, mobilized, trained and led by French officers, that took part in the invasion of Italy and southern France to liberate these territories from the Nazis in 1944-45. It is war writ small, up close and personal. The focus is relentlessly cast upon the fortunes of the men in a single squad. This movie is not so much about war as it is about soldiering. Noteworthy is the subtext of unequal, discriminatory treatment of the Algerians, compared to French soldiers (e.g., inferior food, no leave). In that regard, the film prefigures circumstances that led eventually to the Algerian war of independence from France years later.
THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (Le Scaphandre et le papillon) (Julian Schnabel, France/US, 2007, 112 min). A biodoc based on the true story of Elle magazine’s then editor-in-chief, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a spontaneous cerebrovascular accident in 1995, at the age of 43, that left him a victim of a rare neurological disorder colloquially known as “Locked-In Syndrome.” All the voluntary muscles in his body were entirely paralyzed, except for the capacity to move his left eye and lower the left eyelid (i.e., he retained the ability to “”blink.”) At the same time, he (like others with this disorder) completely retained his mental faculties, e.g., the ability to think and reason, memory, and imagination, along with sight and hearing. After a valiant two year effort to make the most he could of his vastly narrowed life, Bauby died of complications of his disorder in 1997.
The ability to voluntarily blink his left eye became the basis (again, as for some others with this disorder) for Bauby to learn to communicate, i.e., blinking once for “yes” and twice for “no” in answer to any question put to him in proper form. Dictating in this manner (by blinking when another person pointed to or spoke the right letter of the alphabet), letter by letter he “wrote” a book about his experience, which was published just days before his death. The screenplay was adapted from this book by Ronald Harwood. The book is short, composed of many very brief chapters (most about two pages long), and is poetic, impressionistic and non-linear in structure.
This is one of the most astonishing, inventive, well crafted films I have seen in the past decade. Like the book, the film's narrative unfolds softly, lyrically, and is by turns genuinely suspenseful, very funny, intensely heartwarming and heartbreaking. The perspective in 90% of the scenes is from the viewpoint of Bauby (acted masterfully by Mathieu Amalric). We share his visual experience (looking out into his room and at the faces of people close up who attend and visit him), his thinking (though mute he forms “verbal” responses in his mind and we hear these uttered as if he could speak), and his fantasies (depicted as visuals). In flashbacks we learn about his life and, in time, the moment of his stroke. In the latter third of the film we do catch brief glimpses of Bauby from the external perspective of another person. The supporting cast are exquisitely and without exception effective. Emmanuelle Seigner is cast as Céline, Bauby’s former mistress and mother of his two children; French Canadian actress Marie-Josée Croze as Henriette, Bauby’s infinitely patient communications coach; and Max von Sydow as Bauby’s father. A host of other bit players are superb as well.
Julian Schnabel was a darling of the New York art world in the 1980s, when he was a leading light in the neo-expressionist movement. His giant collages, vividly bold paintings mixed with shards of pottery and the like, have not stood the test of time. But in the 1990s Schnabel set out to become a filmmaker, and in this endeavor I think he has found his true métier. Diving Bell is his third feature film. All three are biodocs. First there was Basquiat (1996), based on the short, mercurial life of the New York City graffiti artist and painter Jean Michel Basquiat, starring the fine actor Jeffrey Wright in the title role. Then in 2000 came Before Night Falls, the story of exiled Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, with Spanish superstar Javier Bardem as Arenas. Both are splendid films, but Diving Bell is a quantum leap forward from them.
It is difficult to think of films that can be compared with Diving Bell, but two come to mind. One is The Sea Inside, another biodoc starring Javier Bardem, this time as the long-paralyzed Ramón Sampedro, whose unrelenting effortsto gain legal recognition of what he argued was his 'right to die' caused a great stir throughout Spain. Bauby had thoughts of wanting to die at first, but these faded rather rapidly in favor of an intense bent not only to live but to accomplish as much as possible, including not only preparation of his book but also rapproachment with several people in his life. The other is Almodóvar's masterful film, Talk to Her, which deals with the care of a chronically comatose patient from the viewpoint of the professional caregiver, a nurse, Benigno Martin, played with great sensitivity by Javier Cámara. Diving Bell earned Schnabel the Best Director Award at Cannes in 2007, where Janusz Kaminski, the ingenious cinematographer here, won the ‘Technical Grand Prize.’ The film itself was nominated for best film (the Palme d’Or) but was beaten by Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s drama, 4 luni, 3 saptamini si 2 zile (“4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”). (In French) Grade: A (01/03/08)
THE DUCHESS OF LANGEAIS (Jacques Rivette, France/Italy, 2007, 137 m.). SPOILER ALERT! CONSUMER ALERT! Approaching age 80, Jacques Rivette continues to make films. According to François Truffaut, Rivette was the father of the French “New Wave,” but Rivette has never been commercially successful. One huge reason is that he makes very long – sometimes extremely long - and, on the whole, boring movies. The last of his films that I suffered through was the 2001 talkathon, Va Savoir (Who Knows?), in which people blathered on for 2 hours and 35 minutes, and that, for unclear reasons, was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year. Duchess, at least, is slightly shorter and less gravid with talk. Based on a novel by Balzac, the story concerns an ill-fated romance between two members of Parisian nobility, set around 1820, starting around the time Napoleon I ended his reign as Emperor. The principals are Antoinette, the sparkling and ever so coquettish - never mind that she's way too old to be an ingénue - Duchess of Langeais (Jeanne Balibar, who also starred in Va Savoir), and Gen. Armand de Montriveau, a weary, humorless French army officer (Guillaume Depardieu, Gerard’s son, whose limp here is real: a chronic bone infection, the residuum of a motorbike accident, required amputation of his leg a few years ago). Both principals behave like idiots, and as a result, their love is never realized. According to a Parisian reviewer on the IMDb, the screenplay adheres closely to Balzac’s story. Too bad. Given the lack of appeal of these two characters, we might have disposed of their lunatic romance in at least an hour less time than Rivette takes here. Again for mysterious reasons, this film was nominated for a Golden Bear (Best Film) Award at the 2007 Berlin IFF. Sigh. With veterans Michel Piccoli, Bulle Ogier and Barbet Schroeder in support, among others. (In French) Grade: C (02/04/08)
EAGLE VS. SHARK (Taika [Cohen] Waititi, New Zealand, 2007, 93 m.). Among a fistful of first rate comedies at the Portland IInternational Film Festival this year, here’s the one that gets my vote for the best of the group. You won’t meet quirkier people or encounter goofier situations than you find in this wry, hilarious romantic farce. Jemaine Clement gets the Jon Heder Prize for oddball of the year starring as Jarrod, a solipsistic, brooding hulk of a fellow who, in his late twenties, is still mentally fighting private battles dating back to high school. For reasons that are not obvious, Jarrod is the object of total and unstinting affection from the smitten fast food worker Lily (Loren Horsley). This is not one of those web-of-coincidence flicks, but I will say that the characters in this divinely funny movie make Miranda July’s people in Me, You and Everyone We Know seem like drab poseurs in comparison. Lily is as endearing as she is loony, and it is her tender heartedness and pluck that hold the enterprise together. If you insist that all your favorite film characters be “normal,” you may find this one off-putting, but for me, this film is absolutely spot on, no holds barred fun. Grade: B+ (02/12/07)
EASTERN PROMISES (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada/US, 2007, 100 m.). Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, who delights in making macabre, violent movies (Rabid, Scanner, Videodrome, The Fly, Crash (1996), eXistenZ, Spider, A History of Violence), now gives us his bloody take on the machinations of a very nasty London crime family with Russian and Eastern European roots. Russian-born tough guy Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen in an Oscar-nominated performance) is a chauffeur for the family, which is headed by the charming but ruthless Semyon (the always interesting Armin Mueller-Stahl). Semyon’s mean spirited but error-prone son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), serves as a family enforcer. Rounding out the group of principals is Anna (Naomi Watts), a nurse-midwife who goes looking for the family of a girl she attended who died in childbirth. Using the girl’s diary, Anna stumbles onto incriminating information concerning the crime family, a dangerous discovery to say the least. Plot twists turn viewers around. But what sticks in the mind’s eye are the scenes of blood and gore and, in particular, a long fight sequence pitting two nude men against each other in the dressing room at a public steam bath. It’s a whale of a battle. Grade: B+ (11/07)
ELOQUENT NUDE: THE LOVE AND LEGACY OF EDWARD WESTON & CHARIS WILSON (Ian McCluskey, US, 2007, 60 m.). One of the most exquisitely crafted biodocs in memory enjoyed its world premiere at the NW Film Center tonight, attracting a turn away crowd of 1,200 that required simultaneous screenings in two halls at the Portland Art Museum. Not a soul was disappointed viewing this captivating gaze into the relationship of a world class artist, the photographer Edward Weston (1886-1958), and his muse, model, assistant and spouse, Charis Wilson. The film focuses on the years the couple were together; they were inseparable for about a decade, from about 1933 on. Wilson inspired Weston’s most sublime photographic studies of the nude female form and later assisted him in several other ventures during his Guggenheim-financed photographic explorations in the mid to late 1930s.
Ian McCluskey adapted Ms. Wilson’s memoir, “Through Another Lens,” co-written with Wendy Madar, and also was lead cameraman, director and editor of the film. With extraordinary skill, McCluskey has blended archival material, contemporary reenactments, stills of Weston’s work, and interview segments to create this masterpiece of economical, moving, aesthetically satisfying filmcraft. Not a second is wasted here. Nor is there a bad or even average scene or interlude.
Charis Wilson was 19 when she met Weston (who was then in his late 40s), and their years together were marked by her own formative development from devoted, love struck ingénue to independent, mature personality and gifted writer. Ms. Wilson is in fact the star of this film. Shot when she was 90, her interview segments are graced with the preternatural skill of a fine storyteller. It is her refreshing commentary that binds the other building blocks of this film into a seamless whole. She is candid, amusing, even droll at times. She has marvelous control, speaking without hesitation in well phrased, syntactically perfect sentences with no repetition, not a hint of slowed thinking, none of the pauses, “ums” or “ers” that so often mark the oral narratives of the elderly. She’s now 92 and wheelchair bound, but that did not stop her from making the 700 mile trip from her home in Santa Cruz, CA, to be present at this premiere, nor was she any less eloquent tonight in her post film remarks than on screen. A remarkable art flick, not to be missed. Grade: A+ (03/08/07)
FIDO (Andrew Currie, Canada, 2006, 91 m.). Set in a middle class neighborhood in the imaginary town of Willard in the 1950s, this dark comedy with a light touch toys with such American obsessions as gun mania and violence, materialism and keeping up with the Joneses, fear of others, slavery, golf, and the disposing of the dead. Yes, it all sounds a bit heavy, but trust me on this, it’s all done with a touch as light as a Swedish pancake. Zombies are featured prominently among the characters. Crucial questions arise, such as: who will become a zombie (90% of the Willard folks choose this final path, while only 10% prefer a traditional funeral)? Who owns how many Zombies to do their bidding like robots (they’ve become a mark of social status)? And, what is the range of possible relationships that can be worked out between the living and the sort of reincarnated dead?
Somehow, director Andrew Currie, who also co-wrote the screenplay, keeps this improbable material percolating along for an hour and a half without once faltering for want of a good laugh. A super cast helps: Carrie-Anne Moss, Billy Connolly, Dylan Baker, Henry Czerny, Tim Blake Nelson and Sonja Bennett are the principals, aided by young K’Sun Ray as Timmy, the innocent kid with a good heart who acts as fair witness to all the lunacy perpetrated by the grownups. The production design and music are exquisitely 50s, to a tee. Maybe this one isn’t for everybody. It surely will be a hard film to beat for my annual Bizarro Award. But more than that, for me anyway, Fido is a hoot! Grade: B+ (01/30/07)
FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan/France, 2007, 113 m.). To mark the 50th anniversary of the release of Albert Lamorisse’s immortal short film, The Red Balloon, Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien has prepared a feature-length homage film. In Red Balloon, which earned an Oscar for best original screenplay and a Palme d’Or at Cannes for best short (34 minute) film, a boy, played by Lamorisse’s son, makes friends with a red balloon which follows him around Paris, to his school, and so on. There is no dialogue. Hou’s film begins and ends with a similar theme: a boy and a red balloon in Paris, but mainly the balloon, which soars and dips, finds its way into a Metro tunnel and out again, and drifts up along the sides of buildings, casting its shadow lyrically.
Sandwiched between these red balloon bookends is a small domestic drama built of little events and encounters in the daily life of an actress, Suzanne, played by Juliette Binoche. The film centers on Suzanne, who always seems to be in a breathless dither about one thing or another, spreading chaos wherever she goes; her precocious grade school age son Simon (Simon Iteanu), whose days are buffeted by the ups and downs generated around him by his mother; and Simon’s cool new nanny, young Fang Song (same name as the actress who plays her), a film student just in from Beijing, who brings a bit of serenity and order into Simon’s life. The film is not at all plot driven: nothing much happens. Suzanne rehearses as the main voice for a puppet show. Suzanne has a row with her upstairs tenant, who never pays his rent. Simon’s piano teacher Anne comes in for his weekly lesson. And in one of the more moving sequences in the film, a blind piano tuner comes to call. There you have it. (In French). Grade: B (01/31/08)
GRBAVICA (Jasmila Žbanić, Bosnia, 2006, 91 m.). SPOILER ALERT! Intimate, soulful story of Esma (Mirjana Karanovic), a single mother, and her 12 year old daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic). Set in the present in the seedy Grbavica district of Sarajevo, this film explores the far reaches of trauma in the Bosnian war: how the psychic wounds inflicted in that terrible time remain open and unhealed to this day. The film opens with the camera panning a dark, rich kilim rug behind the front credits, sweeping next over the faces of women lying on the rug, finally to a special face, a sweet, sad woman’s face, her eyes staring painfully straight into our own. Thus, in an instant, before any dialogue begins, we are engaged with this woman, riveted by her, and she interests us deeply from this first moment.
This sense of intense engagement prevails throughout this well told, well photographed narrative. We feel impelled to care about the reclusive, hesitant Esma, Sara, her saucy, spirited daughter, and the one man in the story, Pelda (Leon Lucev) who - although he is a gun toting thug like all the others we meet in the netherworld of Grbavica - is so much more: a devoted son to his shut-in aging mother and a respectful, tender suitor to Esma. Status among the kids hinges on whether their long dead fathers were sheheens – Bosnian loyalists who fought to the death, or the unspeakable alternative, bastards produced by the systematic rape of Bosnian women captured by the enemy in the Bosnian War, the Chetnik Serbs.
We visit a women’s trauma support group, conducted by the same social worker who also passes out subsistence grants. Esma only attends on the days when grants are passed out, and she remains silent even then. But we know she’s disturbed. She startles visibly watching a butcher chop off the head of a fish. Twice at the nightclub where she works she is overcome watching a sexy Ukrainian waitress in an embrace with one of the owner’s thug buddies, and she must run to the bathroom to vomit or cry. Her private, silent avoidance of the painful memories of her own captivity is in the end intruded upon by Sara’s demands to know more about her father, and why it is that Esma cannot produce the customary document certifying that he was in fact a Bosnian soldier killed in action. This is a bittersweet story, full of love between mother and daughter and silently suffered pain, teen infatuation, life on the mean streets, and, in the end, hope for a better future. Grbavica swept the film awards at the 2006 Berlin IFF: Winner of the Golden Bear for Best Film, Best Peace Film, and Special Ecumenical Jury Award. (In Serbo-Croatian) Grade: A- (02/15/07)
HEAR AND NOW (Irene Taylor Brodsky, US, 2007, 86 m.). In a new documentary fresh from its debut at Sundance last month, Irene Brodsky recounts the life story of her deaf parents and the outcome of their joint decision, at age 65, to undergo cochlear transplant surgery in order to hear for the first time. The film records a wonderful love story of two people deaf from birth who met first as children at the CID – the Central Institute for the Deaf - a residential school in St. Louis famed for pioneering an approach to communication based not on ASL - American Sign Language – but on intense training in lip reading and phonic speech, using touch (deaf student touches teacher’s jaw, throat, etc, while the teacher vocalizes, then touches own body and vocalizes to match vibrations).
The two children left the CID and returned to their hometowns, attended mainstream high schools, then reunited after college at a CID gathering, fell in love and married. All of this provides a fetching back story for the other focus of the film: the couple’s cochlear implant surgery. We are shown the pre-operative screening and testing processes, the surgery itself, and then periodic follow-ups over the first year after implantation. The post-implant process unfolds dramatically and divergently for the two, and it raises a number of intriguing psychological issues. Longer review to follow. Fascinating story, well told and filmed. Grade: B+ (02/07)
THE HOST (Gwoemul) (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2006, 119 m.). SPOILER ALERT! If someone told me they’d seen a terrific flick featuring a horrid 20 foot long amphibious monster terrorizing a major city, with two cute children among its captive victims; a multinational force seeking to subdue the beast using biological weapons of mass destruction; the crazed family of one of the kids, a young girl, scampering along in a prolonged chase sequence trying to avoid capture by police and a virus containment squad, in order to save their daughter; a cognitively challenged hero who withstands brain surgery by a cross eyed neurosurgeon; massive doses of an anaesthetic, and full blast spraying with “Agent Yellow,” in order to accomplish what no one else could do, i.e., kill the monster and save the child; oh, and, yes, that its also a hilarious dark comedy with plenty of sight gags thrown in, I would have run as if the monster were chasing me. I need a film made by a committee composed of Jerry Bruckheimer, Roland Emmerich and the Farrelly Brothers like I need a half dozen more holes in the head.
Well, lemming like, I drifted into a press screening of this film today without having read or heard anything about it. It had all the features mentioned above. And you know what? It was a hoot of a film, just plain fun. It’s like Godzilla meets the Marx Brothers or King Kong Meets the Beverly Hillbillies. Granted, the monster is at first sight righteously terrifying. Ugly as sin. Mouth parts like some gigantic Dungeness crab on mega-doses of androgen steroids. Dull gray eyes that bespeak the evil indifference of wild nature itself. A long tapered tail capable of the deftest movements. A creature able to climb, run on land and swim at nearly the speed of sound. Jonah would have turned God down flat before permitting himself to be sucked up by this creature.
But this isn’t your basic monster flick. After a little while, once the opening rounds of mayhem subside, we get down to the real story, by turns slapstick or melodramatic, about the family (grandfather, father, uncle and aunt) in pursuit of the little girl. The film sports a delicious, take no prisoners attitude: it’s anti-American, anti-Big Science. It’s pro-Farting and pro-Environmental protection but can also spoof human rights organizations. And it is most assuredly pro-cell phones. It plays like a superhero comic strip, but the hero, Park Kang-du (Song Kang-ho), father of the abducted girl, isn’t super. No costume, no cape. But he does have virtually supernatural abilities, e.g., to withstand all the punishment meted out to him and still have enough mojo in reserve to take on the monster single handedly. Like the film Fido, this movie ain’t for everybody. I’m surpised to find it’s even for me. But it’s a shrewd, wry, funny flick with a looming black side that mirrors the wantonness of our unthinking pollution of the planet. The monster, by the way, was the special effects brainchild of a San Francisco group called “The Orphanage.” Now where on earth did they get that name? Which reminds me to announce that no computer graphics software was harmed or destroyed during the making of this film. (Wish I could take credit for that gem from fellow film nut Paul Bingman.) (In Korean & English) Grade B+ (02/08/07)
HOT FUZZ (Edgar Wright, UK/France, 2007, 121 m.). Director Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, his co-writer and star of Shaun of the Dead, once again brew up a strange macabre comedy that leaves you wondering. Pegg this time is Sgt. Nicholas Angel, a very serious and dedicated cop in London. He is so outstanding in every way that his superiors decide to pack him off to a country posting, with a promotion, because he is showing up everyone else. In the deceptively sleepy town of Sandford, Angel meets up with an odd lot of locals. He is paired with constable Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), an obese, inept man whose father, Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent), runs the local police department. Developments reveal that things are not what they seem in Sandford. Granted, there is little reported crime, but the reason for this is more sinister than meets the eye. Led by Butterman père and a sleazy local businessman, Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton), a number of the town’s most upstanding citizens participate in a clandestine group that meets wearing dark hooded robes. Why, you may ask. See the movie. Grade: B (01/27/08)
HULA GIRLS (Hula gâru) (Lee Sang-il, Japan, 2006, 108 m.). CONSUMER ALERT! Formulaic teen flick with a mildly interesting subtext about labor-management strife at the coal mine in a small city in NE Japan. When it becomes inevitable that the local mine will close, throwing 2,000 out of work, some entrepreneurial types get the bright idea of establishing a Hawaiian theme destination resort to replace the mine as top employer, never mind the ugliness of the town and the bleak winter weather to match. To promote the new enterprise, they want local women to work up hula dance routines for ads and parties. A teacher is imported from Tokyo, Madoka, played by Yakuso Matsuyuki, the only character of interest in this movie. In the course of training the hopelessly inept bunch of teens and older women who are willing to risk looking like fools, the teacher is transformed from a glamorous, pouty, vain prima donna into a concerned, caring, supportive cheerleader, to absolutely no viewer’s surprise. Naturally by the time she’s done with them the hula troupe is able to perform at a world class standard. The two best things in this movie are: (1) the name of one of the producing companies: “cinequanon” and (2) a still group photo of the core group of dancers standing in front of a mountainous slag heap silhouetted against a polluted gray sky. I left this film after an hour. (In Japanese) Grade: C (02/2007)
I’M NOT THERE (Todd Haynes, US/Germany, 2007, 135 min.). In this imaginative account of Bob Dylan’s life, the conceit is to personify the complex and contradictory nature of the singer/songwriter - a complexity carefully nurtured in the public eye by Dylan himself, as well as by the press – by having six different actors play out various personas that purport to represent valid aspects of Dylan, who does not appear in this film. What you've got is an unusual sort of roman à clef narrative, and the result is a somewhat unwieldy mixed bag.
The three fictional characters are all at least decently wrought. They are singer/songwriter Jack Rollins (Christian Bale); actor Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), the weakest of the three in terms of credibility as Dylan; and, in contrast, the most Dylanesque of all, Cate Blanchett in drag as Jude Quinn, a dead ringer for the Dylan of 1965 on his tour of Britain, a segment shot in black & white that is a stunning homage to D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary of that tour, Don’t Look Back.
The other three personas are based on historical characters, and none is successful. Ben Whislaw plays Arthur Rimbaud; Marcus Carl Franklin plays a young African American teen version of Woody Guthrie, if you can believe that; and Richard Gere’s talents are wasted as a too-old Billy the Kid.
Ms. Blanchett’s turn is a tour de force: she really IS the Dylan of the early 60s, when he earned his permanent place among America’s best musicians of all time. Her physiognomy lends itself to personifying Dylan, and her gestures and voice are spot on. She, Ledger and Bale provide enough chops to compensate for the three ineffective characters, and the whole enterprise is held together pretty well by a sublime soundtrack exclusively featuring Dylan recordings. With Julianne Moore as Alice Fabian (read Joan Baez); Charlotte Gainsbourg as Robbie Clark’s wife, Claire; and David Cross doing a sensational visual impersonation of Allen Ginsberg. On balance the film merits a B (01/04/08)
IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH (Paul Haggis, US, 2007, 124 m.). Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a retired career Army officer, a former military police detective, who is the father of a soldier that has gone missing shortly after his unit returns from Iraq. This masterful story was written and directed by Paul Haggis, who wrote Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby and Flags of Our Fathers, and wrote and directed the 2006 Oscar winning film, Crash. The narrative is part criminal investigation and part tale about the aftereffects of war trauma.
As pieces of the mystery of his son’s disappearance gradually come to light, the stoical, incredulous Deerfield must face what is nearly intolerable to him: the dark side of war. The killing of innocent Iraqis (with the truth of these killings often suppressed), the enduring sense of guilt that some soldiers must bear for their gratuitous taking of lives, and the persistence of explosively violent tendencies in others, a disposition that they were trained to adopt as a necessary attitude for participating in combat, but one which is entirely maladaptive once a soldier returns home.
The photography, by Roger Deakins (whose recent credits include A Beautiful Mind, Jarhead and No Country for Old Men), is superb. The tone of the film is appropriately somber, elegiac. Mr. Haggis evokes marvelous performances from Jones (a flawless actor in seemingly every role he does), Charlize Theron, as the civilian detective on the case of the missing soldier, and Susan Sarandon in a supporting role as Hank’s wife. Other supporting players are also uniformly good. Haggis manages to refrain from political rhetoric and moralizing about the war, letting the actions of the characters speak for themselves. This makes the film’s anti-war message all the more poignant. Grade: A- (10/07)
INTO THE WILD (Sean Penn, US, 2007, 140 m.). SPOILER ALERT! Biopic about a young man who hits the road after college for a character-building odyssey. We learn how he lives along the way and also how he dies. The film is based on the true story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who abandons his upper middle class life to seek adventure on the road. After graduating from Emory University in 1992, as a top student and athlete, McCandless abandons his possessions, gives his entire $24,000 savings account to charity, and hitchhikes to Alaska to live in the wilderness. Along the way, Christopher encounters a series of characters that shape his life.
The fine actors who flesh out these briefly encountered characters include Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn and – most memorably - Hal Holbrook, with Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt as McCandless’s parents. The screenplay is based on the best selling book by Jon Krakauer. This film prompts comparison to Werner Herzog’s documentary film, Grizzly Man, the story of Timothy Treadwell, a social misfit who found his life’s purpose in ‘befriending’ grizzlies in Alaska. Compared to McCandless, one can say that Treadwell was more obsessed - almost delusionally so – with his self-styled role as a buddy to the bears, while at the same time he was more practiced and less naïve about living in the wild. Wonderful performances from Hirsch and the other players are evoked by first time director Sean Penn. Grade: B+ (11/07)
INVISIBLE WAVES (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Thailand/others, 2006, 115 m.). SPOILER ALERT! Very slowly paced story of the odyssey of a young underling Yakuza mobster. This is not as good a film as Rat’s last one shown here, Last Life in the Universe. Yet, in its own way, it is mesmerizing, perhaps because I found the central character, Kyoji (popular Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano) inherently interesting. There is also a fair amount of lowbrow humor – sight gags - especially aboard a ship taking Kyoji to Phuket. I also enjoyed the older hit man, Lizard (Ken Mitsuishi). Some commentator referred to the film as an existential take on a Yakuza’s life. (The fatalism, the inevitability of a premature and violent death, for example.) That’s pretty good. I appreciated the fact that, unlike Last Life, this one was not deconstructed in structure, e.g., we didn’t have to wait until 35 minutes into the film to run the front credits. But this flick definitely could have used more female presence for spice. (I had thoroughly enjoyed the sisters in Last Life.) (In Thai, Japanese, Korean & English) Grade: B (02/19/07)
THE ITALIAN (Italienetz) (Andrei Kravchuk, Russia, 2005, 90 m.). SPOILER ALERT! This film is a sublime chronicle of the adventures of an orphan in search of his mother. Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov), supposedly is 6 years old, though Kolya is more likely 9 or 10. Nor would a 6 year old be capable of displaying the intrepid resourcefulness that Vanya demonstrates over and over again in his struggle for survival on his own terms. Vanya is stuck in a seamy orphanage in a small Russian village; the year is 2002. Foreigners pay big money to adopt these children, and the film opens as an Italian couple arrive at the place, where they agree to adopt Vanya. Two months must pass to clear the adoption, and in this time Vanya, now nicknamed "Italienetz" - "the Italian" - by the others, comes to a realization that he does not wish to go to Italy with this couple, but, rather, wants to find his own mother. He has no sense that, apart from the difficulty he may encounter locating her, very likely in another city, most women who give up children to such places have no interest in ever seeing their progeny again, and many are unfit for parenting.
But Vanya is moved toward a more optimistic vision as he witnesses the recurring visits of a woman - an alcoholic prostitute - who pleads in vain for the return of her son, who is a chum of Vanya’s. She is turned away because to lose the boy means a great financial sacrifice for the people running the orphanage and adoption business. (A friend of ours tells the story of her son and his wife adopting 3 Russian boys at $10,000 per child, required to be delivered in crisp new US$100 bills, and that was a decade ago.) The indomitable Vanya stubbornly holds onto his vision even after a beating by an older boy for jeopardizing the prospects of the other boys to find good homes. He learns to read, finds his file in the Headmaster’s office, gleans from it the address where he lived before coming to the institution, and elopes to find his mother. With the adoption arrangers in hot pursuit, and trouble makers along the way that try to thwart him, Vanya nevertheless is in the end reunited with his mother, a connection as fulfilling as it is unlikely in such circumstances.
This happy ending seems entirely justified because it is not the arbitrary, sentimentalized product of some ham-handed screenwriter. The ingredients of Vanya’s successful quest are his own grit and wiles, and the unexpected acts of kindness by others to aid him: the prostitute who teaches him to read; the older bully who comes to respect Vanya enough to help him locate his file; the old man at the way station for orphans in the city who risks his position to send Vanya on his way toward his mother’s apartment; the adoption arranger who captures him but then lets him go. One might even venture to say that it is the sanctity and determination of Vanya’s quest, his own state of grace, if you will, that moves others to open their hearts to him. If you want to trip even further on this film, it could even be regarded as an allegory for the current plight of Russia itself: lost souls (especially the men, with their escalating alcoholism and downward spiralling longevity) in search of the motherland.
Kolya Spiridonov is vastly charming in the best sense. He’s not cute or sweet. If anything, he’s got an edge, spunk, a bit of attitude (who wouldn’t, living as he has). But more than that, he's whip smart and he exudes a natural sense of confidence and self assertion in a panoply of simple, swiftly passing, apparently spontaneous gestures. His barely wrinkled nose and slight turn of the head when an old man’s cigarette smoke gets too dense. His brief pickup of a phone receiver out of curiosity. His audacious pilfering of his file and equally bold move of throwing sand in the faces of older kids who want to subdue him. His quick-witted lie that a drunken man next to him on the train is his father. There is something decidedly heroic about Vanya, a willingness even to sacrifice himself in the service of pursuing his dream, as he faces each test thrown up to block his progress. It is an astonishing performance.
Virtually all the key supporting players are also first rate. For several it is their first credited screen role, but they’re each one very good, a tribute to both the director and casting agent. The photography is enchanting: faint winter light and an almost milky, filmy look to everything in the exterior scenes. Intriguing views on a long train ride: farms, towns, workers, fellow travelers – all common people. Wonderful close-ups: we feel as if we have come to know several of these people – young, old and in between - at close range. This film is virtually flawless, an absolutely splendid, almost mythic tale. (In Russian) Grade A- (02/07)
JIMMY CARTER MAN FROM PLAINS (Jonathan Demme, 125 min, US, 2007). Well written, well structured documentary in which we follow along for several weeks with President Carter and his handlers as they traverse the nation on a book tour promoting Carter’s latest and perhaps his most controversial geopolitical tome, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Carter is quite relaxed throughout the tour, the sort of experience that most authors consider an unavoidable ordeal that must be suffered through. We see him making pleasant small talk with a makeup artist and staff on the set where he is about to go on the air, and chatting on his cell with Rosalynn while being driven between stops. (He always pulls his own suitcase along and only rides on commercial jets.) At 83, Carter is trim and fit, and we see him swimming and working with hand weights while on tour.
The tour provides a framework that permits periodic departures to show Mr. Carter in other circumstances that reflect his busy life. We see him in the peanut field in Plains, and at a BBQ with townsfolk there, where he is asked to say grace. We also see him helping frame a house on a Habitat for Humanity project in post-Katrina New Orleans, and again on the road, this time visiting a refugee camp in Darfur. He speaks of the work of the Carter Center in Atlanta, mentioning, in particular, work in Africa to reduce onchocerciasis (which produces “river blindness”).
The film casts Mr. Carter in an entirely favorable light, demonstrating his relevance in the world, 27 years after the end of his presidency. In fairness, it should be added that both sides of the controversy about his book on Palestine are presented. But omitted from this account are some of the important controversies that occurred during his administration, for example, his contributions to the double-digit inflation of the period (e.g., substantially raising the Social Security payroll tax); his negotiation of the Panama Canal Treaties, in essence ceding the canal to the Republic of Panama; and his handling of the Iranian hostage crisis (beginning with the fact that the American hostages were taken prisoner in Tehran in response to Carter allowing the Shah to enter the U.S. for medical treatment).
Also omitted is criticism of the more recent role of the Carter Center in international election observation. The Center for Security Policy has said that "Carter’s continued international (work in) certifying election results has provided essential political cover to anti-democratic forces” in Latin America, especially for the Chávez regime in Venezuela. Despite these omissions, the film gives us a rich picture of the contemporary life and work of this vigorous, good man. Grade: B+ (12/18/07)
JUNO (Jason Reitman, 92 min, US, 2007) Good comedic films are few and far between, and Juno is therefore exceptional: it is an absolutely flawless romantic comedy. What’s not to like: there is smart, quick dialogue that feels natural; appealing characters; deft photography and editing, with a well proportioned mix of closeup, middle and long distance shots; great shakey-jakey cartoon style front credits; good music. What’s more, the course of the film is full of surprises.
The story line is simple enough: two virgin teens have sex once, and as luck would have it, the girl, named Juno (Ellen Page) gets pregnant. She decides to have the child and adopt it out. Matters become complicated but, true to the formula of romantic comedy, things sort themselves out by the end. Perhaps the best surprise is that about an hour into the film, predictably in view of its gravid theme, the tone turns serious. More often than not, at this point, such films slide into sentimental or maudlin quicksand and never recover the comic zest displayed earlier on. But in Juno, after just a few more minutes, the tone resumes its earlier pace, with snappy, funny lines, sight gags, and more, right to the end.
The success of this movie hinges on Ellen Page, a veteran actor at age 19, who is asked to be 16 in her role of Juno. She not only delivers, she is a total delight: whip smart, bold, forthright, entirely fetching, with never a false note struck. The supporting ensemble are also spot on: J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are hilarious yet entirely believable as Juno’s father and stepmother; equally good in more sober roles are Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman as the candidate adoptive couple; and Michael Cera as Juno’s nerdish boyfriend, Bleeker.
New Yorker magazine film critic David Denby wrote an essay recently (July 23, 2007 issue) on the shift in romantic comedy from the classic formula of competent career-wise, handsome, but psychosexually clueless man pursued by the equally attractive, resourceful female who has designs on him, with various problems thrown up along the way that appear to impede their paths toward romantic union. In more recent films, Denby points out, the woman is more competent than ever, often a corporation exec or otherwise talented person, who has designs on a man who is passive and often bumbling, an underachiever (think of the film High Fidelity, for example, or many of the [male] slacker films). You wonder what on earth she sees in him. Juno follows this more contemporary arrangement, though without really demeaning Bleeker.
Most importantly, this movie is darn funny. I often could not resist laughing out loud (well, chuckling audibly), something I rarely do (even in amusing sequences, staying quiet, after all, is a fundamental of good theater manners). Grade: A (12/26/07)
KING CORN (Aaron Woolf, US, 2007, 88 m.). Most things an informed person would care to know about the dark side of American corn production are covered in this cleverly structured documentary, the first feature directed by Aaron Woof, who also co-wrote and co-produced the film. Two former college buddies, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis (who also co-wrote and co-produced), decide to drive to Iowa in winter, where they prevail upon a friendly corn farmer to let them (with the farmer’s guidance) plant and tend a one-acre plot of corn. As one season shades into the next, we follow these two friends working their plot though the stages of planting, growth, harvesting and disposal of their corn crop. This narrative provides a framework for exploring a series of issues raised by the increasing dominance of corn production in the American farm economy.
Among the themes discussed are federal subsidization of corn production (without which many small farmers, at least, would lose money); the use of genetically modified seeds and powerful herbicides; and the pervasiveness and health hazards of high fructose corn syrup in the American diet. We discover that grass-fed beef is vastly superior in quality to corn-fed beef, though the former is becoming increasingly uncommon. Perhaps not discussed (I don’t recall now) is another significant consequence of subsidization: the flooding of the Mexican market with huge amounts of cheap American corn (under NAFTA rules), thereby undercutting the indigenous Mexican corn economy and driving many small domestic farmers into poverty, leading them to leave their farms and migrate to the cities, where they often have trouble finding work and populate huge slums. Curt Ellis was present at this screening. Grade: B+ (11/07)
THE KITE RUNNER (Marc Forster, US, 2007, 122 m.). SPOILER ALERT! Set in Kabul, Afghanistan, this is a beautiful, sad story of friendship, guilt and redemption, in which the particulars concerning individual lives reflect themes with broader meaning in terms of the culture and recent political history of that beleaguered country. The narrative was adapted for the screen by David Benioff from the best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini. Young Amir, from a well to do family, and Hassan, son of Amir’s father’s servant, are best friends. Though the smaller of the two in stature, Hassan is brave and tough where Amir is timid and fearful. Hassan is forever coming to Amir’s defense against the mean teasing of older boys. But when these boys corner, beat and rape Hassan one day, Amir, who is aware of the attack, slinks away without attempting to aid his friend.
Subsequently, in the wake of the Russian invasion of 1979, which resulted in the killing of perhaps more than a million Afghanis and the emigration of another 5 million to Pakistan and elsewhere throughout the world, Amir and his father flee the country and end up living in Los Angeles. Years pass. The Russians are overthrown by the American-aided Mujahideen militias, and then the Taliban ascends to control the country. We witness both the coming of the Russian occupation and later the brutality of the Taliban’s enforcement of sharia law.
In the midst of this terrible, Taliban-dominated period, the adult Amir returns to Kabul in search of Hassan but finds he is no longer alive. Hassan has a young son, however, and Amir aims to track him down and take him to America. He eventually discovers the boy, who has been forced to become a sex toy for a Taliban higher-up. Amir succeeds in rescuing the boy and the two escape the country. In the final scenes, Amir and the boy fly Afghan style kites together back in LA, just as Hassan and Amir had done when they were boys.
The film is gorgeously designed and photographed. For location filming, China stands in for Afghanistan, but one easily gets the sense of the barren, rugged Afghan desert and mountains that we are familiar with from still photos and documentary footage. The soundtrack is sublime. Mr. Forster, the talented director of Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, and Stranger Than Fiction, evokes splendid performances from a large cast of professional and non-professional players, led by Khalid Abdalla (the adult Amir) and Zekeria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada as the young Amir and Hassan, respectively. Both young actors are natives of Kabul, and it has been reported that their lives were endangered because of their participation in a film that takes up the theme of sodomy. If there is any aspect of this film that merits criticism, it would be that the story seems too perfect, too pat, especially the improbable rescue of Hassan’s son by Amir. (In Dari, Pashtu, Urdu, Russian & English) Grade: A- (01/04/08)
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (Clint Eastwood, US, 2006, 141 m.). Clint Eastwood follows up his fine film Flags of Our Fathers, about the American experience on Iwo Jima, the long term toll on several of that battle’s survivors, and the enigmatic, often mysterious nature of war (“the fog of war”), with a companion film about the Japanese experience of that fateful ordeal. Letters is the more accomplished of the two films, destined to become one of the greatest of war films ever made. For a U.S. production directed by a quintessential American filmmaker, this film is all the more remarkable for having been cast entirely by Japanese actors, speaking their native tongue, from a screenplay by a Japanese American writer, based on a trove of illustrated letters to family members written by the commander of Japanese forces on the island, Gen. Tadamichi Kiribayashi, and discovered, unsent, on the island years later. Americans living in Japan report that when Letters played in first run in places like Tokyo, theaters were packed and many filmgoers left at the end with tears in their eyes. One might easily have said that Letters was possibly the best Japanese film of the year.
Whereas Flags focused primarily on post-war experiences of combatants, rather than on the battle itself, which we witness in a series of flashbacks, in Letters it is the immediate experience of combatants under fire that takes center stage, with flashbacks to the families back home, the roots from which the central characters had come. The mission for the Japanese was entirely different from the American mission. Knowing they would receive no air support or reinforcements, Gen. Kiribayashi (Japanese film star Ken Watanabe) has orders to resist the U.S. forces for as long as possible, fighting until the last man succumbs, either to enemy fire or an honorable suicide. We see how these fatalistic circumstances affect individual soldiers differently. Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura), a career officer, is fanatically driven to serve in the highest traditional, honorable way, and he has no qualms about dying in the process. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) is a humble baker whose only goal is to survive and return to his wife and child. Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a former Olympic equestrian, and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), who may be a secret police agent, round out the group of principals. The players uniformly give poignant, vividly human portrayals.
Gen. Kiribayashi is a dignified, practical and decent man who had studied in the U.S. He ruffles the feathers of his more aggressive minions by behaving with kindness toward ordinary troops and captured enemy as well. He also is a shrewd military tactician. It is he who conceives the notion of digging out large caves in which the Japanese forces can shelter themselves from incoming fire. After a battle that stretched on for over two months, in which the Americans lost 7,000 lives and another 20,000 wounded (of the 100,000 troop total), only around 1,000 of the Japanese force of 20,000 were still alive. Rather than make a final suicidal attack, Gen. Kiribayashi defied tradition by surrendering.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this film is its success in giving us a view of war from the perspective of the enemy, and thus it succeeds in humanizing the enemy (who in any war are routinely demonized in the eyes of one’s own soldiers and nation). In this sense, Letters stands next to All Quiet on the Western Front and Das Boot as among the most sensitive, justifiably sympathetic accounts of war ever to come to the big screen. Nominated for a best picture Oscar in 2007, Letters received a Golden Globe award as best foreign language film of the year, and the L.A. Film Critics Association award for best film.(In Japanese & English) Grade: A (01/25/07)
THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Das Leben der Anderen) (Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck, Germany, 2006, 137m.). SPOILER ALERT! Florian Von Donnersmarck made his feature film debut as writer-director of Lives of Others, a project that consumed him for five years. Lives is set in East Berlin, in 1984, five years before the fall of the East German communist regime (GDR). The story chillingly portrays life in a police state, where vast numbers of citizens are routinely surveilled upon. “It is not a true story,” says Von Donnersmarck, “but it is truthful.” (Von Donnersmarck - Florian for short - spoke at the screening I attended.)
Georg Dreyman (Sebastion Koch) is a popular playwright, a darling of the regime (a book in his collection was a gift from Margot Honecker, the GDR leader’s wife). But a powerful Minister, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) thinks Dreyman is too good to be true, a viewed shared by the drama’s pivotal character, Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe). These two persuade Wiesler’s boss, Lt. Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukor), to have Wiesler initiate surveillance of Dreyman: 24/7 monitored microphones throughout his apartment, tapped phone, tailings around town, the works. It soon becomes clear to Wiesler that Dreyman is in league with subversive literati and is preparing an article exposing the high suicide rate among East German intellectuals - data long suppressed from public view - to be smuggled into West Berlin for publication in Der Spiegel. Then a curious thing happens. Wiesler - an obsessive, diffident, fanatic GDR loyalist and ruthless interrogator - begins to falsify his surveillance reports to protect Dreyman. Was gibt?
Matters grow uglier after Dreyman’s article is published, and its style points to him. Col. Grubitz decides that Wiesler is incompetent and, under pressure from Minister Hempf, takes personal control of the investigation. Grubitz finds a weak link in Dreyman’s lover, the celebrity actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Threatened with permanent loss of her career, Ms. Sieland cracks, telling Wiesler and Grubitz where Dreyman hides the untraceable typewriter used to prepare the article. But when Grubitz’s men search, the typewriter has gone missing. Dreyman survives intact, Wiesler is demoted but never suspected of treason, but Sieland suicides before realizing that Dreyman has been spared. Dreyman is so shattered by events that writer’s block seizes him for years to come. He had always smugly assumed that he was beyond suspicion. Among other things, Lives is a meditation on the carelessness of such nonchalance and the importance of vigilance, the protective value of paranoia, if you will, in a police state.
Many ingredients in Lives are splendid, including the photography, editing, music and production design. The property manager, Florian told us, had himself been imprisoned by the Stasi, and he took special delight in procuring authentic Stasi equipment for props. However, the surpassing features of this film are its scintillating screenplay and sublime acting. Ulrich Mühe, whom Florian regards as the leading stage actor in Germany, won for Best Actor at the 2006 European and German film award competitions.
I know of only one other serious film treatment of the GDR, the 2000 German film by Oskar Roehler, No Place To Go, about a writer who lavished praise on the regime in her novels. The government in turn sponsored her frequent 5-star trips to the West and her charge accounts at Parisian couture salons. Like Leni Riefenstahl in Hitler’s Germany and Georg Dreyman in Lives, she reaps the benefits of a politically correct celebrity. The fall of the regime shatters her world, and she seeks in vain to replace what she has lost. Finding no niche, she suicides. Bummer. That film found no place to go commercially. Small wonder when Florian was pressed by potential backers to rewrite his film into a comedy, like the 2003 international screwball hit, Good Bye, Lenin.
Florian’s parents came from East Germany to the West, to Cologne, shortly before his birth in 1973. His mother, a party member, continues to look favorably upon communist ideals, remaining what Florian calls a “salon communist.” His father, on the other hand, readily embraced the conservative democratic perspective in West Germany. “We had the cold war right in my house.” He also described a visit to relatives in East Berlin when he was a youngster. At the border, because of her notoriety, his mother was detained for several hours. “My brother and I were amazed that someone as powerful as our mother could be strip searched in East Berlin.” It was a lesson in the power of the regime that Florian did not forget.
At one point he was asked if it seemed ironic that his GDR story comes at a time when the U.S. has compromised domestic civil liberties through passage of The USA Patriot Act and Executive Branch tactics like spying on telephone calls of ordinary citizens. The filmmaker smiled wryly, replying that the differences in conditions between the GDR and Bush 43’s America can easily be understood by noting that even to raise such a question publicly would have risked arrest and possibly worse in the GDR. But, he quickly added, many in Western Europe were surprised at how easily we Americans gave in to compromises of our civil liberties after 9/11. After the fall of the GDR, a museum was established in East Berlin devoted to the display of Stasi materials: interrogation methods, paraphernalia, and thousands of surveillance case files. Florian told us that only 10% of those with files have taken advantage of the opportunity to review them. Most, it would appear, prefer to forget painful memories of past tyranny. However, the rate of inquiries has doubled since his film was released!
Toward the end of the film, Dreyman goes to the Stasi museum to review his file, some twenty volumes or more, and discovers for the first time Wiesler’s identity. Dreyman even identifies Wiesler later on the street working now as a postman, though the writer makes no contact. Instead, concluding that it must have been this man who saved him, for the first time in years he now prepares a novel entitled “Sonata for a Good Man” (also the title of a musical work composed for the film by Gabriel Yared). In the final scene, we see Wiesler pick up a copy in a bookstore, noting its dedication to a person identified only by a cryptic phrase – Wiesler’s Stasi code name. (In German) Grade: A (02/09/07)
Add on Feb 25: Lives won the Oscar tonight for Best Foreign Film. Way to go, Florian! What an impressive guy: age 33, 6 feet 9 inches tall, and an Oxford grad.
MICHAEL CLAYTON (Tony Gilroy, US, 2007, 119 min) SPOILER ALERT! In Tony Gilroy's new film, morality is at odds with corporate and individual self interest, a familiar theme given fresh legs thanks to a fine script and good acting. This movie also features a terrific depiction of mania. The title character (played by George Clooney) is an attorney working for a large New York law firm. He’s a fixer, called upon to sort out messes that can involve clients or the legal staff. Clayton is skilled at this dirty work but disdains it, referring to himself as a ‘janitor.’ He’d rather return to litigation but his boss, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), needs him in his present role and Clayton needs a loan, as he faces debts from a restaurant business that’s gone belly up.
Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a senior partner in the firm, has spent years defending U/North, an agrichemical corporation, against a multimillion dollar class action suit charging that one of its products had caused multiple deaths and chronic illnesses. The case is finally close to a settlement. But Edens suffers from a bipolar disorder, and while working on the case out in Milwaukee, he disrupts a deposition by stripping off his clothes and running naked out into the city. Clayton is dispatched by Bach to get hold of Edens and control the damage.
The script was prepared by first time director Tony Gilroy, who wrote the screenplays for Dolores Claiborne, The Devil's Advocate, Proof of Life and the Bourne trilogy, among a dozen writing credits. Of course it is nearly every screenwriter’s dream to have directorial control over a film, since in others’ hands the final shooting script so often bears little resemblance to the original. Here Gilroy makes the most of his opportunity. For example, Crowder is a complex character. She can be ruthless but she’s also insecure. She frets endlessly about speaking before the company’s board. Scenes in which she rehearses her presentations before a mirror alternate with cuts to the actual presentations in an ingenious way that highlights subtle shifts in her use of words and phrases. This is one example of the intelligent dialogue and wordplay in this film. Especially fine are conversations between between Clayton and his 10 year old son, and between Clayton and Edens.
Knowing, nuanced dialogue is increasingly uncommon in Hollywood films these days. David Denby, writing about this movie in The New Yorker, suggests that the reason is the industry’s marketing strategy of global film distribution. Whether subtitled or dubbed, quick, subtle exchanges are hard to transfer to another language, so spectacle and special effects trump talk to increase the appeal of American movies abroad. (Dumbing down language in favor of action satisfies a broad segment of domestic moviegoers as well, though Denby is perhaps too polite to mention this.)
Wilkinson gets mania right. As the film opens, before we even meet his character, we hear a long screed delivered by an unseen Edens in a voiceover. His mood is expansive, edgy and irritable. His speech is pressured and rapid, and there is a flight of ideas. His behavior is further marked by restlessness and free wheel spending ($100 tip to a cabby; buying 15 loaves of his favorite French bread), and he’s preoccupied with sex, sinister interpretations of ordinary events, delusional talk and perhaps visions of being reborn, coated in amniotic fluid, or excreted by some huge monster. He also says that he is ‘Shiva, God of death." Grade: B+ (10/07)
MILLIONS: A LOTTERY STORY (Paul La Blanc, US, 2006, 101 m.). CONSUMER ALERT! Interviews and stories of several winners of major sums of money in lotteries. Sixteen school food service workers in a small community together won $95 m. Two other men each won several million. The food workers generally went about their usual lives and did little that was splashy. They did donate to replace the church organ. Each of the two men managed to dissipate all of their winnings. The film offers portraits of these people that, with a single exception, are not at all flattering. Indeed one wonders whether the filmmaker had set out to show up these people as foolish or at least tasteless, i.e., to show perhaps that lavish lottery purses are more-or-less wasted on people ill-suited to using big money wisely. The only appealing character is a man who, after losing his winnings to non-stop partying, redeems himself later through religious work with convicts. The others are enormously dull on camera, and the result, unsurprisingly, is a dull film. Grade: C (02/02/08).
Mongolian commentators on the IMDb have derided Bodrov and the film for its historical inauthenticity, faux costuming, lack of character development, and the use, for the most part, of non-Mongolian actors whose command of the language varies from rudimentary to plain bad. All of this may be true, though the narrative line does conform rather closely to that provided in the only Mongolian source from that era, the saga-like “Secret History of the Mongols” (circa 1240), as reviewed in the Encyclopedia Britannica. For a westerner like me, and perhaps also for Russian audiences, lacking knowledge of the period and the background of Genghis Khan, and with no ear for the language, this film provides absolutely spot-on entertainment value. John Ford westerns were also often historically specious, but they too, like this eastern, were great fun to watch. (In Mongolian). Grade: A- (02/05/08)
MY BROTHER IS AN ONLY CHILD (Mio fratello è figlio unico) (Daniele Luchetti, Italy/France, 2007, 108 m.). Antionio (“Accio”) (Elio Germano) and his older brother Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio) come of age in a small seaside town near Rome in the 1960s. Politics and women rule their lives. Manrico is a zealous Communist, Accio a dilettante Fascist who later converts to his brother’s cause. Accio initially is studying for the priesthood, but drops out because his sexual urges make him feel too impure to continue. Manrico, on the other hand, rejects religion: "Jesus was (just) a revolutionary who pissed off the Romans," he claims. Things turn ugly when Manrico adopts terrorist tactics. The plot offers no surprises: we all know that Italian male volatility fuel political extremism and sexual fervor, or so the stereotypes go. Elio Germano is a charming, roguish fellow, and the best scenes are those in which his Accio and Manrico scuffle. With Luca Zingaretti, Anna Bonaiuto and Diane Fleri as able supporters. (In Italian) Grade: B- (02/06/08)
MYSTIC BALL (Greg Hamilton, Canada, 2006, 83 m.). Fascinating, handsomely photographed and edited documentary about how a Canadian man, Greg Hamilton, has mastered Chinlone, an ancient, exotic “sport” played exclusively in Myanmar, where it is the national pastime for people of any age. I put sport in quotes because the art of Chinlone is really a meditative discipline in which one practices and plays throughout life (we see players from age 9 to 86) and plays best when experiencing a light transcendental trance state. The sport involves a lightweight hollow ball, about 6” in diameter, woven from rattan strips. As typically performed, six Chinlone players stand within a circle perhaps 20 feet in diameter, kicking the ball among themselves, typically with one pivotal player in the center (“the solo”).
The form of every kick is stylized, based on a precise system of about 200 kick variations developed over the past 1500 years or more (head, back, bottom, knee…any body part can “kick” except the hands and arms). But the decision about which form of kick to use at a given moment is up to the player, and thus play is always a matter of improvisation. Think of a cross between soccer and hackysack. Play by a given team lasts 35 minutes. The discipline required for proficiency really becomes a lifelong spiritual enterprise. There is no competition, but rather a spirit of total collaboration among the players. There is no score, no “winners” or championship titles (though there clearly are superior groups who are nationally renown). A few solo players, nearly all women, can make a living performing, maneuvering the ball while balancing on a tightrope, a stack of bottles, any variation they can imagine. The vast majority, who play group Chinlone, work at day jobs.
Mr. Hamilton was present to discuss his experiences. He has a broad smile as sweet as apple pie, and the body fat content of titanium. He’s 53 years old but has the body of a world class athlete of 25. He had practiced oriental martial arts for 10 years, but had grown weary of competitive battling, when he discovered Chinlone at the age of 30. He has for over 22 years devoted himself almost completely to mastering the discipline, often journeying to Mandalay, where much of this film was shot over 8 years. Mandalay is the center of the Chinlone culture, and Hamilton has often stayed for weeks for instruction, practice and, more recently, the opportunity to participate on teams that display their game at the major annual Waso Festival that heralds the coming of the monsoon season each summer. His ambition now is to organize a world tour for some players, hoping that Chinlone may at long last catch on elsewhere. Fabulous movie going experience! (In Burmese & English) Grade: A- (02/17/07)
NAMING NUMBER TWO (No. 2) (Toa Fraser, New Zealand, 2006, 94 m.). Nanna Maria (a strong lead performance by Ruby Dee) orders her tumultuous extended family, all transplanted years earlier from their native Fiji to a small city in New Zealand, to prepare a feast in her honor. What a hoot ensues! Nanna likes drinking and gorging on roast pig and lots of feuding and fighting at her bashes, just like the old days back home. Everybody obliges big time. Adult grandchildren Erasmus ("Mus") (Rene Naufahu), Charlene (Mia Blake), Soul ("Raskil") (Taungaroa Emile) and Tyson (Xavier Horan) lead the revelers, but for my taste the camera dwells too long and too often on Tyson's Anglo girlfriend, the somewhat daffy "Danish" Maria (Tuva Novotny). Still, this the best feast on film since Stanley Tucci's Big Night a decade ago. Grade: B+ (02/10/07)
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Joel & Ethan Coen, 122 min, US, 2007) SPOILER ALERT! In Ethan and Joel Coen’s new film, No Country for Old Men, we meet a fellow named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) whose methodical, unrelenting, expressionless homicidal conduct marks him as one bad ass dude: if anyone merits the cliché of being evil incarnate, Chigurh’s your man. The Coens adapted Cormac McCarthy’s novel for the screen. The plot line is simple: a major drug deal turns sour; many bodies are left at a desolate rendezvous point on the desert; a huge trove of cash goes missing. Well, we know who first discovered this scene and took the money. It was Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), an ordinary man with extraordinary courage (or, perhaps, foolishness). Moss means to keep the dough, knowing full well that someone sooner or later will come stalking him to get it back.
Enter Chigurh, one of the nastiest, most heartless killers you’ve ever met in a movie house. The rest of the film involves the extended chase, a cat –and-mouse game, a battle of wits, between Moss and Chigurh , and we’re increasingly certain who will prevail. Meanwhile, the local Sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), eventually receives news about the drug-related killings and tries to pick up somebody’s scent to track. Bodies begin to stack up along the trail, and the signature methods and sheer volume of the killings tells a veteran criminal bounty hunter, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), that the killer must be Chigurh , and Wells informs the Sheriff.
This film reflects the craftsmanship of the Coen brothers, who are masterful storytellers, at their very best. No Country is as good as Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowsky (1998), maybe better than either (though the other two are among just a handful of films I never tire of watching again). Brolin is entirely convincing as Moss, a scared but fairly clever man on the run. Jones (Harvard graduate, fluent Spanish speaker, horseman) takes all the time in the world to fill the role of the laconic Sheriff Bell. Jones, like fine wine, keeps getting better with age. Though his range is arguably somewhat limited (he always seems to play the world weary, decent man), Jones is among our very best actors working in film today.
Best of all is Spanish actor Bardem, whose family have been involved in acting and filmmaking from the earliest days of commercial cinema. He is now an established international superstar, following his outstanding roles in such films as Before Night Falls, The Dancer Upstairs, Mondays in the Sun, The Sea Inside, and Love in the Time of Cholera. His Chigurh is as chilling a citizen as any you hope you’ll never meet. There is a preternatural calmness and single mindedness in Chigurh ’s pursuit of Moss and the money that suggest the nearly psychotic intensity of a first rate criminal psychopath, the sort of man that inspired the title for psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley’s classic work on such people, “The Mask of Sanity.” Of interest is the fact that Sheriff Bell’s measured, deliberate style closely parallels Chigurh ’s conduct: these men appear to share in common a sense of inevitability, even fatalism, about the courses they are following.
All aspects of this film – the mise-en-scène, photography, editing, music – work harmoniously to create maximum suspense while at the same time providing several highly humorous moments along the way (a Coen trademark). Grade: A (12/26/07).
NO END IN SIGHT (Charles Ferguson, US, 2007, 102 m.). Charles Ferguson has created an Iraq War documentary that is unique in its scope. While some films have chronicled the run up to the war (Fahrenheit 9/11, Rush to War); and others have concerned the war and occupation experiences of U.S. soldiers (Gunner Palace, Occupation: Dreamland, The Soldier’s Tale, The War Tapes) and Iraqis (Iraq In Fragments); and one has focused on the management of news about the war (Control Room), Ferguson’s aim is to critically analyze U.S. occupation policies that have directly helped cause the chaotic, dangerous conditions that characterize Iraq today.
Using archival footage of Bush administration officials and fresh interviews with a number of knowledgeable individuals unafraid to speak critically of the administration’s mistakes, Ferguson (who wrote, directed and co-produced this film) patiently and dispassionately builds his damning case against Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the Neocons, leaders with no knowledge of war, occupation or conditions in Iraq. He elaborates on three fundamental errors in U.S. policy: (1) use of insufficient troop levels, allowing the looting of Baghdad; (2) purging of agency professionals from the Iraqi government, a central cause of the incompetence of the country’s post-war governance; and (3) disbanding of the Iraqi military, producing a contingent of over 800,000 unemployed men with guns.
The two major figures responsible for the mismanagement of the occupation are Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense (major influence on troop levels), and Paul Bremer, officially the Director of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq (ORHA), unofficially the “viceroy” of Iraq in the crucial early phases of the occupation, between May, 2003, and June, 2004 (prime mover for decisions to purge government apparatchiks and decommission the [largely Sunni] army).
Although this is his first film, Ferguson is no fly-by-night wunderkind. Now in his early 50s, he received his BA degree in mathematics from UC Berkeley and his PhD in political science from M.I.T. He did post-doctoral research at M.I.T. and became a consultant to the White House, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Defense Department and several domestic and European hi-tech corporations, including Apple, Xerox, Motorola and Texas Instruments. He co-founded one of the first Internet software companies and sold it to Microsoft two years later for $133 million. Since then he has been a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Ferguson was able to obtain candid interviews for this film with Gen. Jay Garner, first Director of ORHA (February to May, 2003); Major Gen. Paul Eaton, in charge of training the new Iraqi army, 2003-2004; Col. Paul Hughes, director of strategic policy for the U.S. occupation, 2003; Amb. Barbara Bodine, in charge of Baghdad for the initial U.S. occupation; Robert Hutchings, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, 2003-2005; and Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State, 2001-2005, among many others.
No End has received numerous honors, most recently an Oscar nomination for best documentary. It has already been named best documentary (or non-fiction film) by the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Toronto Film Critics Association, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, among several others. It won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, 2007. The award noted that it was made “in recognition of the film as timely work that clearly illuminates the misguided policy decisions that have led to the catastrophic quagmire of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.” This thoughtful, measured, first rate film should be seen by every American. For more information, go to the film's website at www.noendinsightmovie.com (In Arabic & English) Grade: A (08/07).
Add: My French language consultant is stumped just a bit on the English translation of the "Nous C Nous" group's name, but figures it is most likely to mean: "We, It's Us."
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR: BOB DYLAN LIVE AT NEWPORT (Murray Lerner, US, 2007, 83 min.). Dylan’s sets at the 1963, 1964 and 1965 Newport Folk Festivals. Every number is presented in its entirety. An opportunity to watch Dylan’s growth and his controversial (for the “folkies”) crossover into electronically amplified rock in his 1965 set. A pure concert film, without commentary or talking heads. B&W Grade: B (as an early Dylan archive: A) (Seen in the NWFC "Reel Music" Series, 01/11/08)
A security guard at a nearby train yard turns up dead - his body severed in half to be precise - after being run down by a train. According to a detective on the case, Richard Lu (Daniel Liu, in a superb first time film performance), DNA evidence links the death to a skateboard found in the Willamette River. Because of this evidence, Detective Lu questions a number of boys known to skate at the park, including the protagonist in this film, Alex (Gabe Nevins, who also performs outstandingly in his first film role). Alex is a humorless kid around 16 or 17 who may be depressed. His parents are separated and headed for divorce. His mother goes off to Las Vegas now and again. Though his father tries to remain connected to Alex, he's usually on his own, and his 13 year old kid brother seems to be his only reliable source of support in the family. Alex’s introverted moroseness permeates all of his interactions. At one point he tells a sort of girlfriend that “…something happened to me on some other level than daily events.” Is he simply reacting to the trauma of his family's dissolution? Is he suffering through the prodrome of a psychotic breakdown? Does he know something he’s not able to discuss with others, something he can only write about in a journal?
This story, based on a novel by Blake Nelson, is presented in a quiet, almost lyrical manner, very much in the style of Elephant, Van Sant’s last film about troubled teenagers. Problem-burdened young people have been the focus of other Van Sant films as well: think of Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester and Last Days. You might even say that the experience of troubled youths, especially boys/men, is the dominant theme in most of Van Sant’s projects. And what shines through especially is Van Sant’s understated, unsentimental compassion for these youths. Moreover, his ability to evoke excellent turns from first-time actors is exceptional. This is true not only with Nevins, Liu and several supporting actors cast in Paranoid Park, but also with previous young non-actors in Elephant and Finding Forrester.
The photography is always interesting. After collaborating with Harris Savides on four prior films, Van Sant has linked up this time with the internationally sought after cinematographer, Australian Christopher Doyle, with Kathy Li collaborating. So we don’t have Savides’s long tracking shots and over-the-shoulder, subjects’ perspective camera angles. Doyle and Li’s work is less about the subjects’ movement than more conventionally shot scenes, but many of these, like the opening scene of the neo-gothic St. John’s Bridge north of Portland, are beautiful. An exception is the brilliant slow motion footage of skateboarders doing their thing. The action shots here are better than most of those in Stacy Peralta’s skateboard documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys (though in fairness, I should add that most of the historic skateboard shots in that film were stills taken by amateurs, not moving pictures: good archival material perhaps but poor in demonstrating the artistry and skill of the sport). A canny sense of - yes - paranoia is maintained by the use throughout Paranoid Park of ominous, discordant background sounds and murmured voices, not unlike the quality of auditory illusions and hallucinations described by persons suffering from schizophrenia or paranoid psychosis. At Cannes in 2007, Paranoid Park won the special, one-off 60th Anniversary Prize and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. Grade: A- (02/11/08)
PERSEPOLIS (Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud, France/US, 2007, 95 m.). A stupendous marvel of a film about the odyssey of an Iranian girl from childhood (age 9) to young adulthood (age 23), traversing the final years of the Shah’s reign, through the revolution, to the years of the ever more repressive Islamic theocratic regime, and, finally, the young woman’s exile, first to Vienna, later to Paris (the story spans the years 1978 to 1992). This is an animated film based on the 2003 graphic autobiographical novel of the same name by Marjane (“Marji”) Satrapi, who is also the co-director and co-screenwriter of this film.
Some aspects of the narrative are fictive. As Ms. Satrapi said in a recent interview in Mother Jones magazine (Jan-Feb 2008, pp.74-75), “I don’t like the word ‘autobiography.’ I rather like the term ‘autofiction.’ The second you make a script out of the story of your life, it becomes fictional. Of course the truth is never far.” Ms. Satrapi says she made this film not for Iranians but for “the rest of the world,” because she had heard “…so many stupidities about my country since I left Iran.”
The film makes clear the cruel irony that the Ayatollahs have been far more harsh in their treatment of dissidents than the Shah ever was, and that under sharia law, freedom of conduct and speech have been narrowed, while the definition of dissidence itself has been greatly broadened. But this story also points to the many clandestine activities whereby young Iranians have continued to express their pro-western affinities for pop music, dance, fashion, alcohol, marijuana and hashish use, and, perhaps most importantly, gender equality.
The animation in this film is stunning, mesmerizing. (It represents Ms. Satrapi’s first effort in this medium, while her filmmaking collaborator, Vincent Parannaud, had previously made one animated short film.) In black and white like the graphic novel, the images are simple and highly stylized. Yet there is a distinctive, lifelike fluidity of movement of the characters. And after a while, gripped by the narrative and the flow of the imagery, one loses the sense of watching something animated and instead experiences the film as if shot using live people and scenes.
If there is any criticism of this work, it would be that the subtitles are often very fast moving, and one is caught uncomfortably between the desire to dwell on the ever interesting visual images and the necessity to get the translations of the (largely French) dialog, in the subtitles. I saw the original version, (in French, Persian, German and (a bit of) English. The voices, which are first rate, are provided by Chiara Mastroianni (as the teenage and adult Marji); Ms. Mastroianni’s mother, Catherine Deneuve (as Marji’s mother); Danielle Darrieux (Marji’s deliciously irreverent grandmother); Simon Abkarian (Marji’s father); François Jerosme (Marji’s Uncle Anouche) and Gabrielle Lopes (Marji as a child). I understand that an English version has just been released in the U.S., with the voices of Ms. Deneuve (still Marji’s mother), Sean Penn (Marji’s father), and Iggy Pop (Uncle Anouche). It remains to be seen whether this version will solve problems or create new ones.
This sublime film has garnered a number of prestigious awards, including the Jury Prize at Cannes (tied with Stellet Licht); the Sutherland Trophy for the most original and imaginative first feature at the London Film Festival; the LA Film Critics Association award for best animation (inexplicably tied with the far inferior Ratatouille); the National Board of Review (US) Freedom of Expression Award; the NY Film Critics Circle award for best animated feature film; and the most popular film award at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Don’t miss it! Grade: A (01/23/08)
PETE SEEGER: THE POWER OF SONG (Jim Brown, US, 2007, 93 min.). Here is a brilliantly made documentary, an account of the life, times and music of Pete Seeger, folksinger, composer and social activist. Seeger, now 88 years old, was the undisputed leader of a revival of folk music in the 1950s and 60s and its crossover from narrow popularity among “folkies” to mainstream popularity in the 60s.
This flawless film blends a satisfying mixture of Seeger’s recorded music - his banjo playing and singing, alone, with the Almanac Singers and later, for a few golden years, with The Weavers; biographical information, illustrated by archival stills and film footage (throughout his career, Seeger was frequently filmed while performing); and engaging yet brief interview segments with other musicians of the era (among them Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter Yarrow, Mary Travers, Ronnie Gilbert, Bruce Springsteen, Arlo Guthrie) and members of Seeger’s family. Adding immeasurably to the fullness of the narrative are segments of interviews with Seeger himself, sometimes in the form of narrated voiceovers, as well as contemporary footage of Seeger walking, chopping firewood and reminiscing at his rural home in Beacon, New York, in the Hudson River Valley.
The toll on Seeger and The Weavers as a result of the dark era of communist witch hunting by the House Un-American Activities Committee was severe. The Weavers, then at the pinnacle of their popular success, were blacklisted, unable to book any gigs, and so they disbanded for several years. Seeger himself was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to acknowledge that at one time he had been a member of the Communist Party (he had been). It took seven years of legal efforts for Seeger to clear his name by overturning this conviction in Federal Court, but his blacklisting continued for another decade after that.
In the 1980s and 90s Seeger was recognized once more for what he was: a man who loves America and seeks greater harmony, justice and freedom for all Americans through music. This recognition culminated iwhen he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1993) and the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Honor (1994). These days Seeger no longer tours or does solo concerts, but he does relish in accompanying one of his grandsons, who is a folk musician. If there is any justifiable criticism of this work it is that the film is entirely adulatory (Seeger’s wife Toshi was a co-producer). Still, it is a wonderful, spiritually uplifting, well composed film that does authentically capture the essence of this man and his times. Grade: A- (Seen in the NWFC "Reel Music" Series, 01/12/08)
PLAY (Alice Scherson, Chile/Argentina, 2005, 100m.). SPOILER ALERT! Here’s an unexpectedly delightful web-of-coincidence film set in the dreadfully smog infected city of Santiago. Cristina (Viviana Herrera) is an indigenous native from a rural village in southern Chile who has escaped the dead end life of her home town in favor of the city, which never ceases to excite her, even though her enjoyment of urban life is limited to the vicarious pleasure of walking the streets, people watching. This she does when taking long breaks from her job as a live-in caregiver to an old, dying man. One day she discovers a briefcase in a dumpster chock full of stuff, including documents identifying the owner.
We then see a flashback to the evening before, in another part of town, where we meet the man whose briefcase Cristina has found: Tristán (Andres Ulloa), a civil engineer from a well to do family, whose glamorous girlfriend has just announced she wants to break up their relationship. Wandering the streets dejectedly that night, Tristán is attacked by two different men, who then chase each other, resulting in the one with the bag throwing it into the dumpster when police arrive. Instead of simply returning the case and its contents to the owner (Tristán), Cristina begins to savor and use the contents: for her these articles are almost like magical talismans, symbolic of the people and city that so fascinate her. For example, she takes up smoking the cigarettes in the bag, using Tristán’s lighter.
But then Cristina begins in earnest to push the envelope: she travels to Tristán’s house and commences stalking him and his erstwhile girlfriend. Events unfold unpredictably and often with entirely surprising images out of the blue (a bar of butter rapidly melting; a camel’s face, gazing curiously into the lens; baby chicks eating out of Tristán’s shoes; the matching tattoos of a couple who own a lowlife tavern) and moments of humor (a procession along a neighborhood sidewalk, with Cristina shadowing Tristán shadowing his girlfriend; a slugfest in which the girlfriend, her new squeeze and Tristán all roundly belt each other). There is no need to spell out the ending, which can be summarized as fitting and believable. This movie is a small treasure, a first feature for 30 year old writer-director Scherson. The talent on offer here suggests we should watch for more good things to come from her. (In Spanish) Grade: B+ (02/22/07)
PRICELESS (Hors de prix) (Pierre Salvadori, France, 2006, 104 m.). SPOILER ALERT! Audrey Tautou has come of age, in a sense. At 24, she played a convincing if somewhat quirky gamine in Amélie, then had a series of less than memorable roles. Now, at 30, she comes at us as a scheming, clever gold digger, Irène, who is willing to trade sex for financial security, or at least for unlimited credit to shop, in a frothy little sex farce set among the leisure classes. Despite her vamping manner and just barely dresses, Tautou's Irène falls short of being a femme fatale. She's sufficiently skinny to make you think, woops...Audrey's become anorectic. She has that emaciated physiognomy of a mannequin in a New Yorker couture ad. The film is saved by a crafty screenplay and by Gad Elmaleh, who plays Jean, a lowly bellhop and substitute barman at a classy Biarritz hotel where Irène is holed up with her latest sugar daddy. Bored one evening, she seeks some kicks in the bar, where she mistakenly thinks that Jean is another guest. Jean, with a face as soulful as a Bassett hound, and more than a little passive, may not be the brightest light on the tree, but he still knows more-or-less what to do with a willing lady. So he plays along, and, sure enough, it’s just a hop, skip and jump into bed, with Irène in the driver’s seat, so to speak. Later, of course, Irène drops Jean like yesterday’s underwear when she discovers his penury, and the rest of the film is an entirely predictable little journey bringing the couple back together again. (In French). Grade: B- (02/15/08)
PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES (Coeurs – Hearts) (Alain Resnais, France/Italy, 2006, 120 m.). SPOILER ALERT! Alain Resnais, the venerable auteur, now 84, here makes his contribution to the wave of web-of-coincidence, web-of-life films that have become all the rage internationally, from local whiz Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (a favorite at Cannes, though why is still a mystery to me) to Look Both Ways (Australia), Daybreak (Sweden) and Up and Down (Czech Republic), among many others. Though this is hardly a distinguished film of the sort that secured Resnais’ permanent place in film history (Hiroshima, mon amour; Last Year at Marienbad; My American Uncle), it does have the master’s touch: it’s smart, well acted, well designed and photographed, and absorbingly written.
The story, adapted from Brit Alan Ayckbourn’s play, concerns six principals in Paris whose lives touch one another through chance.The overarching theme is what the French title implies: matters of the heart. The characters are well etched and vary delightfully in texture. There’s Dan (Lambert Wilson), a gruff, angry raw sort who was forced out of a military career because of deeds unmentioned; his glamorous paramour Nicole (Laura Morante), who tires of his moping, idleness and daily drinking bouts. Dan exits and soon responds to a personals ad from Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré), a lonely young woman who is the kid sister of Thierry (André Dussollier), an aging real estate agent who had been showing flats to Nicole and Dan before they broke up.
Thierry’s secretary is Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), a repressed Bible reading Christian spinster by day but a perverse sado-masochistic exhibitionist at heart, making videos of herself at play - in leathers and less - to give surreptitiously to her boss to watch (her sexy displays follow other footage on the tape from an inspirational television show). Dan hangs out at a bar, chatting up Lionel (Pierre Arditi), an older bartender. Lionel goes home to a miserable life, cooped up with his demented, agitated, bedridden father, whom we hear bellowing insanely but never see. Somehow Lionel engages Charlotte to baby sit the old man now and then. There, got all that straight? These people play out their hands at the game of life for two hours, and it is a drama well worth the viewer’s time. (In French) Grade: B+ (02/2007)
THE RAPE OF EUROPA (Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen & Nicole Newnham, US, 2006, 117 m.). Documentary account of the systematic looting and destruction of European art works by the Nazi regime. Also featured are the extensive efforts made by locals to hide and protect their treasures, and the post-war efforts of special allied teams - the “Monument Men” - to discover and save as many of the works as possible. Archival footage and interesting talking heads are woven throughout this well edited film. The directors also co-wrote the film, based on the 1994 book by Lynn H. Nicholas: ‘ The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War.’ (Ms. Nicholas is among those interviewed for the film.) Excellent narration is provided by Joan Allen. (In Polish, Italian, Russian, German, French & English). Grade: A- (02/05/08)
RATATOUILLE (Brad Bird & Jan Pinkava, US, 2007, 111 m.). A Parisian rat proves himself to be the best chef in the city in this Disney/Pixar animated, anthropomorphic production. Unfortunately the novelty of the story and visuals gradually wears away, leaving this viewer bored well before the end credits. (In English and French) Grade: B (10/07)
RED ROAD (Andrea Arnold, UK/Denmark, 2006, 113 m.). SPOILER ALERT! Set in a rough northern district of Glasgow, this is a suspenseful, eerie drama about Jackie (Kate Dickie), a youngish widow who works for “City Eye,” a private security firm that uses a gazillion video cameras to literally track everybody’s movements in the problematic districts of the city, calling in first responders as needed. Jackie is a pensive, incredibly subdued woman who shows a surprising, uncharacteristic spark of interest in Clyde (Tony Curran), a man she first spies on camera having intercourse with a local girl up against a brick wall near the council high rise where he lives (called Red Road).
As the story unfolds, Jackie gradually insinuates herself into Clyde’s rather loose, party-oriented life, again, out of character for this reclusive woman. Why? Well into the film, her motives become clearer. She’s setting this fellow up to be remanded to prison, where he had been sentenced several years earlier for a drunken driving offense that had changed Jackie’s life forever. Her successful act of revenge does not produce a gloating triumph; instead it unleashes a flood of grief and liberates her from the burden of deep, indolent anger and obsessive behaviors. Winner of a Special Jury Prize at Cannes. (In Glaswegian English, mercifully supplemented with subtitles, after Ken Loach) Grade: B+ (2/12/07)
THE RULES OF THE GAME (Jean Renoir, France, 1939) . Renoir's tragicomic critique of the supercilious, self indulgent and ineffectual nature of French society at the brink of WWII. The story turns around a lengthy houseparty at the country estate of a wealthy Parisian couple, she the daughter of a famous Viennese conductor, he a rich wastrel preoccupied with his love life and collecting extravagant antique motorized music making toys. No one escapes Renoir's satirical scalpel here. Ostensibly a knock on idle aristocratic Parisian society, in fact the servants fare no better here, behaving with equal absurdity and self absorbtion. Among members of both classes, everyone seems to be chasing everyone else in various sexual roundelays that at times cross class boundaries as well. There are many funny moments.
This is perhaps the seminal "upstairs downstairs" drama. And not a film for those who react badly to misuse of animals: a gratuitously large number of rabbits and pheasants are shot in a memorable game hunt that could prophetically have represented the Maginot Line. Renoir himself plays Octave, a genial fellow who tries to help others but also a failed musician who aptly describes himself as a social parasite who would starve if he could not live off his friends. Marcel Dalio gets most of the good lines as Robert, the rich host.
The film was cut before its first release in Paris, further cut after apparently outraging its initial audiences, banned by the Vichy government as demoralizing, then banned again by the occupying Nazis. The original negative was later destroyed when the Allies bombed the studios at Boulogne. The picture was reassembled from 200 cans of film and bits of soundtrack, and this reconstructed print finally premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1959. At the time, Truffaut said of it, "the most important filmmaker in the most important film." Pauline Kael agreed, calling it "perhaps the most influential of all French films." A new digitized print became available in 2007. Grade: A+ (first seen and review written 09/15/01; new print seen on 03/20/07)
THE SAVAGES (Tamara Jenkins, US, 2007, 113 min.). First rate family drama/comedy in which two siblings, Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) and her older brother Jon (the ubiquitous Philip Seymour Hoffman), must come to the aid of their estranged father, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) when his dementia progresses to the point where he can no longer care for himself. Lenny is an irascible, cold, foul mouthed man, who was possibly abusive to his children when they were young, and to his wife, who ran away many years earlier. Struggling to come to terms with their father, Wendy at one point says to Jon, “Maybe dad didn't abandon us. Maybe he just forgot who we were.” Jon in turn says at another point, “we’ll take better care of the old man than he ever did for us." Wendy, an unsuccessful playwright, and Jon, a college professor who works endlessly on a perennially unfinished book, each have had lifelong impairment in their capacity for intimate relationships with potential partners and with one another. They struggle in their reactions to their father’s decline, and in their efforts to find consensus about decisions that must be made concerning Lenny. Wendy’s response is one of emotional volatility, while Jon is more matter of fact, the more practical of the two.
There is authenticity in each actor’s conduct and in the circumstances in which they find themselves. This is an increasingly common sort of family scenario that feels here like it is happening to real, ordinary people. All three principals give fine performances, especially Hoffman in one of his best turns ever. The original screenplay by Ms. Jenkins is extraordinary, well deserving of the several honors she has received, e.g., winning best screenplay awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, with additional nominations for best screenplay from the Writers Guild of America, U.S.A., and the Independent Spirit Awards. Grade: A- (01/04/08)
THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS (Isabel Coixet, Spain, 2005, 115 m.). SPOILER ALERT! Isabel Coixet’s well crafted narrative screenplay interweaves two subtexts: an intriguing psychodrama about the long lasting wounds of war trauma and a convoluted, slowly building love story of two damaged people brought together by chance on an oil rig in the North Sea. Josef (Tim Robbins), an engineer on the pumping station, has been burned and temporarily blinded while trying in vain to save a coworker from a fiery suicide. Hanna (Sarah Polley), a social recluse who works as an assembly line factory worker in England, has more or less been forced by the HR department to take a month long holiday, to quell the animosity of her fellow workers, who resent her scrupulous punctuality and four year record of never having taken leave for illness or vacation.
A chance conversation in a tavern leads her to volunteer to serve as a nurse to Josef, aboard the oil rig. (Hanna had been trained in and practiced nursing for several years in the past.) The initial encounters between Hanna and Josef are spiced with unpredictable thrust and parry. Josef does the thrusting: mouthing off provocative sexualized comments to Hanna, like a guy coming on at a bar. She in turn remains all but mute; she won’t even tell her name at first. She is diffident toward the rest of the crew as well. Slowly over the next days she lowers her guard, begins to thaw with everyone. In time Hanna shares her story with Josef. Her origins in Sarajevo. Her detention along with other women by their own Bosnian troops, who held her captive for months and systematically raped and mutilated her and the others. She tells Josef that he’s just like those other men, harboring only a lascivious interest in women. She also tells him that a friend of hers was forced to kill her young daughter by shooting her through the vagina, though we suspect that the “friend” was Hanna herself.
This catharsis, possibly her first disclosure to someone other than her therapist (played by Julie Christie) seems to dissipate Hanna’s deep malaise. Josef discloses his own sources of remorse: his affair with a woman married to his closest friend, possibly the same man who had suicided aboard the rig, though we cannot be sure. Josef in time is medivaced for care in a hospital and Hanna returns to the factory. But in the end they find each other in a plausible reconnection that is tender and genuine but devoid of any sentimental pretensions.
A nice sidebar is provided: some glimpses of how men on the rig pass time. They improvise playground swings, play cards, make up song and dance performances, and a few engage in homoerotic encounters. The supporting cast of crew members is very good, led by the chef, Simon (Javier Cámara). All in all this bittersweet production offers a compelling view of the far reaches of the grotesque trauma of war. (In English) Grade: B+ (02/ 07)
SICKO (Michael Moore, 123 min, US, 2007) Despite Michael Moore’s narcissistic insistence upon drawing attention to himself in his films, he does deserve great credit for increasing popular interest in the documentary film form, as even the distinguished documentarist Barbara Kopple has noted. In so doing, he has undoubtedly succeeded at least in presenting his left-leaning views (e.g., anti-corporation, pro-gun control, anti-war) to a politically wider audience, including many people who do not typically sit still long enough to hear such views.
Having said this, I must also tell you that Sicko, Moore’s latest rant, is also his most vacuous, as he belabors the obvious regarding deficiencies in access to health care in the U.S. No doubt you’ve heard the details of this, so I won’t repeat them here. While Moore, like anyone, can easily cite egregious examples of denial of proper medical care in this country, his screed superficially and uncritically glorifies the national healthcare systems of Britain, Canada, France and Cuba. This film is chuck full of cheap shots, even though Moore manages to keep his own hulking frame out of camera range more often than in his earlier work. Grade: B (8/07).
There’s only one rational couple in Snow Angels, and they are adolescents in the heat of first love: Arthur (Michael Angarano) and Lila (Olivia Thirlby), whose scenes together provide the only real substance to this movie. Oh, yes, there’s also one sane adult, Arthur’s mother, Louise (Jeanetta Arnette), but we seldom see her. The other adults are bonkers, though the actors do their bathetic turns well enough (Kate Beckinsale, Griffin Dunne, Nicky Katt, Sam Rockwell and Amy Sedaris – David S.’s kid sister). Filmed in a small town in Nova Scotia. Grade: B. (02/21/08)
There was much talk about dialogue. Green's scripts are distinctive for the simplistic realism of the actors' lines. He says that he writes a script and has his cast first go through it adhering to what’s written. Then they go through it again, this time ad libbing in character. The final product is something of a Hegelian synthesis, scripted bits dotted with ad libs, he says. The result is, hopefully, something fresh. ‘In the end who cares what’s written on a scrap of paper,’ to paraphrase Green’s reference to the shooting script. Angarano says of Green’s approach that usually the cast more or less automatically reverted to primarily using the scripted dialogue. Green says he shrinks away whenever someone recommends a “clever” script for his review, because he knows this means “clever” dialogue that may play well on the page but will be unsatisfactory (i.e., too complex, to unlike real ‘talk’) on screen. [My take: the dialogue in Real Girls is especially noteworthy for its realistic simplicity, maybe more so than Angels.]
A SOLDIER’S PEACE (Kristen & Marshall Thompson, US, 2007, 82 min.). Sergeant Marshall Thompson, an Army journalist (since 1999), family man, and devout Mormon from Logan, Utah, where his father had been the mayor, came home in 2006 from a year spent in Iraq, a year in which his work led to him interviewing literally thousands of soldiers about their experiences and perceptions while serving in Iraq. He found that the majority eventually arrived at the same conclusion he had drawn: the war was not only unnecessary but unrelentingly harmful to the Iraqi people as well as our own military personnel.
Over his first few months back home, Thompson found his anti-war sentiments deepening, and at some point he began to view himself as a peace activist. He pondered about how to call attention to his point of view, in a state (Utah) well known for its conservative, right wing Republican politics and overwhelming support for George Bush and his Iraq war policy. Thompson decided to go on a personal peace walk, from the northern end of the state to the southern end, from near his hometown of Logan to the Arizona border south of St. George, roughly 500 miles. The walk was calculated to take 27 days (Sundays off for religious observance and a rest), a number chosen to reflect the number of U.S. forces killed in Iraq – at the time around 2,700 – so that each day of the walk represented 100 dead soldiers. Upon learning of Thompson’s plan, state officials initially insisted that he must obtain a permit for his walk, then not only did these same officials deny his application, but also told him that if he started on his roadside walk, he would be arrested “because his walk would have no purpose” (i.e., akin to a vagrancy charge). His attorney father-in-law, collaborating with ACLU lawyers, persuaded the Utah Attorney General to permit Thompson’s peace walk rather than face litigation on violation of his First Amendment rights. The AG capitulated, and Thompson set out, with one friend, early on a rainy morning, October 2, 2006, with his backpack and rain slicker.
This film, co-written and directed by Thompson and his wife, Kristen, first presents the backstory summarized above, then focuses on the walk itself and a number of people who turned out to walk at least part of the way alongside Thompson. The longest walking companion was Doug Firstbrook, an Air Force veteran from the north Oregon Coast who had been a radio broadcast journalist based in Thailand during the Vietnam War. Firstbrook walked with Thompson for 25 of the 27 days. Other walkers came and went as time permitted. Walking through Provo, Thompson was joined by only one Brigham Young University faculty member (and zero students). For a spell Thompson walked shoulder to shoulder with a former Army Ranger who strongly supports the war. By the time he left the walk, this man said that although he disagreed with Thompson, he found him to be a likeable, reasonable, patriotic, solid citizen.
On the 16th day, Thompson received word from his wife that their one year old daughter Elisa had been found to have a tumor on her neck, and doctors feared it could be cancerous. Torn by the pull of his family’s need for his presence and his ambition to complete the walk, Thompson was urged by his wife to continue on, while she sought more definitive diagnosis of Elisa’s condition. Well over 100 people turned out near the end to witness and celebrate the completion of Marshall’s trip. People turned out with peace placards and hundreds of white balloons, one for each person who had communicated their desire to join the walk but who could not break away from commitments at home. One fellow wore a costume in the form of a tall black bomb, and lettered across the front were the words “Drop Bush, Not Bombs.” Marshall’s parents were there. Kristen and Elisa were there (her tumor turned out to be benign). One of Thompson’s heroes was there: Ron Kovic, the paraplegic Vietnam combat veteran and peace activist who was the subject of the docudrama Born on the Fourth of July.
Interspersed with footage of the walk are scenes of Army personnel in Iraq and archival film of Vietnam era protests, focusing in particular on the Kent State incident where National Guard troops killed four students and wounded nine more, a watershed event in turning American public opinion against that war. Also intercut with this material are brief but pithy segments of interviews with Kovic; Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq; Rocky Anderson, the mayor of Salt Lake City and a peace activist himself; Daniel Ellsberg; and representatives of various protest groups, including Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Gold Star Mothers, and Code Pink, a women’s peace organization. Pro-war “counter-protesters” are given their chances to speak as well. Thompson himself is intermittently on camera. He is a calm, well dressed, obviously sincere, unpretentious, patriotic, dedicated peace activist who says at one point, “We can honor those who died without honoring the war.”
If the film’s climax is the celebration at the completion of the walk, its denouement begins with Thompson, walking alone for a 28th day, this time in Washington, DC. The extra day was added to reflect an additional 100 soldiers killed in Iraq during the month in which the walk took place. While there he met with several Congresspersons, including a 45 minute conference with Utah Senator Robert Bennett. Later Thompson applied for a job with a Utah newspaper but was turned down because of his peace walk.
This documentary is expertly photographed and well edited. The narrative arc is excellent. The film is all the more powerful because its tone, and Thompson’s style in particular, are so resolute while at the same time understated, free of anger and histrionics. The music is outstanding and well suited to the visual material, especially the songs “Where is the Rage” (by Pat Scanlan) and “A Soldier’s Peace” (by Hareword Wake). One small fault is that some important still-text shots at the end pass by too quickly to be fully read. At this point the film has been submitted for possible screening at the Sundance Festival next January. No theatrical distribution has yet been arranged, and DVDs are not available to the general public. This fine film deserves wide distribution. Until such access occurs, I can only direct you to Marshall Thompson’s website to keep abreast of developments: www.soldier’speace.com. Grade: B+ (01/14/08).
THE SOLDIER’S TALE (Penny Allen, France/US, 2007, 52 min.) In 2004, Penny Allen, an American narrative filmmaker who has lived and worked in Paris for the past 15 years, was flying home to Portland, Oregon, because of her mother’s death. By chance, her adjoining seatmate was a soldier who was on his way home for a mid-tour furlough during a 12-month deployment in Iraq (he is referred to only as “Sgt. R.”) They struck up a conversation about the Sergeant’s experiences in Iraq. Subsequently, unsolicited, he sent to Allen in Paris many still photos and a video entitled “War is Hell” filmed by Sgt. R and a number of his soldier buddies during their tour of duty.
Moved by her encounter and the visual material, some of it disturbingly graphic, Ms. Allen set forth to film a documentary for French television. To complement the in-country material, she also conducted and filmed a five hour interview with Sgt. R, about a year after his return. The result is “The Solder’s Tale,” a brief (52 minute), balanced, apolitical and entirely arresting story about the rigors of insurgency and counterinsurgency combat, spanning not only the uncertainty of survival and the anguish of loss and maiming of lives, but also the exhilaration and lure that soldiering can elicit. The difficulties coming home, including marital disruption, and clear signs of chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are also addressed.
This film’s one significant flaw is that, in edited scenes from the five hour interview conducted by Ms. Allen with Sgt. R, her voice comes through loud and clear, but the Sergeant, unfortunately, is a mumbler, and one misses a number of his presumably important comments. In spite of this drawback, I find this it to be one of the most poignantly revealing war stories I have viewed on screen. Penny Allen was present at this screening to provide the backstory. Grade: A- (12/29/07)
This film has won high praise from critics internationally. Frankly I find it difficult to see why. Granted, it tells an epic story, writ both large and small, of social and physical upheaval in China. This subject of dislocation of millions of people - an estimated 2 million alone caused by the Three Gorges Dam, though this is but a fraction of the nationwide totals induced by economic change - deservedly has captured the interest of the director, Jia Zhang Ke, who previously made the film The World, about the dislocation of young adults from rural settings to the cities. I thought at the time that that film was plodding and uncompelling, though it was well received internationally. Still Life proceeds at a glacial pace, with frequent repetition of identical or highly similar scenes (demolition of buildings, high water marks painted on buildings, crowd scenes) to the point of inducing serious boredom for me (and for several others with whom I discussed the film afterward). In the fictional sequences, the actors are wooden and thus hold little interest after we initially meet them. They may well be non-actors engaged by the director for this film, but the use of amateurs is no excuse for bad acting: it simply means bad coaching or inadequate directing. Did Jia want these people to be so unexpressive because he sees their stoicism and lack of animation as representing the effects of the shock of change on people? Possibly. Who can tell. In any event, I could not sit for longer than 90 minutes, for I was on the verge of becoming a still life myself. Up against such acclaim, I guess I can only chalk up my reaction to an idiosyncratic dislike for most slow moving films. (In Mandarin). Grade: B- (02/20/08).
Add: we learn in the film that demolition workers make 50 yuan per day, while coal miners earn 300. The mines are far more dangerous than the dismantling of buildings, hence the larger wage. Many have protested the notoriously hazardous conditions in China's coal mines, and a number of mines have been shut down in response. The current Chinese experience of coal mining is very well explored in Li Yang's 2003 film, Blind Shaft.
THE STORY OF PAO (Chuyen cua Pao) (Quang Hai Ngo, Vietnam, 2006, 98 m.). A convoluted story of love and family life among the Hmong people, based on a short story and set in the rural northern highlands of Vietnam. Gorgeously photographed and costumed, this is said to be the first film made by indigenous Vietnamese (as opposed to exiled filmmakers working in the U.S. or France). A masterful achievement by Ngo Quang Hai in his debut as a writer-director. Starring the luminous Do Thi Hai Yen (Vertical Ray of the Sun, The Quiet American). (In Vietnamese) Grade: B+ (02/16/07)
TEN CANOES (Rolf de Heer & Peter Djigirr, Australia, 2006, 90 m.). Wonderfully imagined enactment of an aboriginal tale, a version of a dreaming story that has no doubt been passed on for ages by oral tradition to the present day, written with respect and humor by co-director Rolf de Heer. The major theme is the tribal ground rules addressing circumstances in which a younger man covets the wife of an elder. It is also a lesson in the need for restraint, i.e., on not jumping to premature conclusions about who is to blame, when a woman disappears. The younger man is taught life lessons that we learn through a series of long flashbacks to the parallel, prototypical encounters that spelled out the rules 1000 years ago or more.
As researched by reviewer Howard Schumann, of Vancouver BC, on the IMDb (Schumann is one of the best among IMDb film commenters), the film is set in central Arnhem Land near the Arafura Swamp in northern Australia, east of Darwin. A group of Ganalbingu tribesmen embark on a hunt for magpie geese, a wild bird used to sustain the tribe. To navigate the crocodile-infested swamp, elder Minygululu (Peter Minygululu) leads the tribe in building canoes made out of bark. When he discovers that his younger brother Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil) has a crush on his third wife, Minygululu tells Dayindi a story set in a mythical time after a great flood that explains how his people developed laws to govern their behavior, the same laws used by the tribes today. To distinguish between the past and the "present", De Heer uses muted color to show the ancient landscape and black and white for the more modern story.
The story is narrated by an unseen David Gulpilil, one of only two professional actors - David’s son Jamie is the other - in a cast otherwise composed of non-actors recruited from the tribe. David Gulpilil is superb, narrating with a whimsical, wry, sometimes teasing, almost musical style that is always delightful to hear. Fellow PIFF'er Gil Neiger reminds me that this is the same fellow - David Gulpilil - who led Jenny Agutter and her kid brother to safety in Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, 35 years ago. Crusoe Kurddal, playing Ridjimiraril, a shaman who is the older brother in the myth, is particularly outstanding. This exceptional film opens a wide window for us to gaze into a remote yet entirely comprehensible world. And it’s fun as well. (In Aboriginal & English) Grade: B+ (02/07/07)
THEN SHE FOUND ME (Helen Hunt, US, 2007, 100 m.). CONSUMER ALERT! This unfortunate film marks Ms. Hunt’s directorial debut (she also co-wrote the screenplay). She also stars in the film, as April, a woman who marries in her late 30s and desperately wants to have a child. After efforts at getting pregnant by her immature new husband Ben (Matthew Broderick) prove futile, he leaves her. Pregnancy, the death of a fetus, issues around adoption, and new romance keep April bouncing from one event to the next in a perpetual dither. This enterprise is a third rate soap opera. A number of scenes are poorly arranged (awkward intercourse between Ben and April in the rear seat of a car with the door open on a NYC residential street has got to be one of the least appealing movie sex scenes in memory). The photography is unimaginative, except that somehow, as a result of great effort, boom mikes are visible at the top of the frame at least a third of the time. While it is likely that the mikes were visible because the local projectionist selected the wrong aspect ratio, careful post-production work would have rendered each frame free of this nuisance in the first place, so that aspect ratio should not matter. This is the most egregious example of this flaw I’ve ever seen, and a telling note about the sloppiness of this production. The only reason to see it is author/public intellectual Salmon Rushdie acting in an uncredited bit role as April’s obstetrician. Note to Ms. Hunt: stick to acting. Grade: C- (01/28/08)
THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Paul Thomas Anderson, US, 2007, 158 m.). We have come to expect well-crafted films from prodigious 37 year old writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love), but even these fine productions do not prepare one for this astonishing film about an oilman in early 20th Century California, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a tragic saga of epic proportions. The film was adapted by Anderson from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel “Oil!,” considered one of the best works by the prolific, sensationalistic author and social critic. Anderson maintains Sinclair’s melodramatic tone here, in a lavish production marked by stunning cinematography and a performance for the ages by Day-Lewis.
Plainview is a driven man with a fanatical zeal for success. We follow his odyssey from rags (in 1898) to riches (by 1927). His goal is to garner control of as much of the oil rich lands of the Santa Clarita Valley in southern California as he can afford. To this end he is willing to use guile, intimidation, outright lying and masquerade to influence people to sell him their land. He is by turns cruel, unctuous, vindictive, hypersensitive, violent, tender, and always intense, possessed by a demonic fervor that is barely contained at best, and murderous at worst. Day-Lewis’s performance has the mesmerizing, riveting immediacy one saw in the best of Laurence Olivier’s work, but Day-Lewis is less stagy, more naturally attuned to the camera.
Don't for a minute think that this film is simply a star vehicle. The story is thoroughly suspenseful (I didn’t glance even once at my illuminated watch in over 2 ½ hours, one of my litmus tests for a fully absorbing drama). It is a classically tragic story, the tale of a rich and powerful man brought down by his own avarice and malice, a figure not unlike Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane). Day-Lewis is ably supported by young Dillon Freasier as Plainview’s son, H.W., himself a tragic figure; Paul Dano as Paul Sunday and Eli Sunday, the bold young preacher who stands up to Plainview as much as anyone dares; Kevin J. O’Connor as Henry, who may or may not be Plainview’s half brother; and Hans Howes as Bandy, a tough old fellow who resists selling his land to Plainview. The production values shine, especially the excellent photography of Oscar-nominated Robert Elswit (who shot The River Wild; Heist; Good Night, and Good Luck; Syriana and Michael Clayton, in addition to Anderson’s four previous feature films). This film is as good as any domestic picture I’ve seen in the past decade or more. (In English & American Sign Language) Grade: A (01/25/08)
TOUCH ME SOMEPLACE I CAN FEEL (Simone de Vries, US, 2006, 60 m.). Dutch documentarist Simone de Vries is drawn to outsized American characters (Kinky Friedman: Proud to be an Asshole from El Paso, 2001) and fringe cartoonists (Planet Kamagurka, 2004), so it shouldn’t surprise that she sought out John Callahan for her latest character study. Callahan is a Portland, Oregon, denizen who is a syndicated cartoonist, emerging musician and world class curmudgeon, a delightfully funny misanthrope. Carrot topped, with a pock marked leprechaun’s face, often seen wheeling around town, always up for a chat, Callahan is a guy who has transformed his deep bitterness at being left quadriplegic by an auto accident when he was 18 into a biting humor that takes no prisoners.
Callahan loves especially to bait and tease the handicapped. He scoffs at our contemporary cult of victimization. Laugh it off, quit feeling sorry for yourself, he tells the disabled. One of my favorite Callahan jokes – emblematic of his general outlook - is mentioned in this film: the lament of a woman who, following her colon resection, says, “since I got my colostomy bag, it’s really hard to find matching shoes.” Callahan is nothing if not perpetually ornery. When Ms. de Vries first came to town to make the film, she told us at a Q & A, she started their initial conversation, naturally, by alluding to Callahan’s cartoons, and he responded by stating he is no longer a cartoonist, but a musician, leaving her momentarily stuck. In fact he is seriously pursuing music nowadays, and we see several glimpses of this. This film is a lovely, brief, economically crafted piece. Callahan’s publisher, Mark Zusman at Willamette Week, says in the film that Callahan has “the soul of a poet and the intellect of an assassin.” Right on. Grade: B+ (02/2007)
UNDER THE SAME MOON ( La misma luna) (Patricia Riggen, Mexico/US, 2007, 109 m.). SPOILER ALERT! A nine year old boy, Carlitos (Adrian Alonso) has been waiting in his Mexican home town for four years, since his mother, Rosario (Kate del Castillo), emigrated illegally to Los Angeles to work as a domestic and earn money to send home to support Carlitos and his grandmother, the ailing Reyna (María Rojo). Rosario calls Carlitos every Sunday morning from a pay phone in the East LA barrio, and as we eavesdrop on their conversations, it is painfully clear he wants to be with his mother, and she with him.
Matters come to a head when Reyna dies, and a couple of ne’er do well cousins try to gain control of the boy and thus the money Rosario sends each month. Carlitos runs away with the determined goal of reuniting with his mother in LA. The rest of the film details Carlitos’s dangerous road trip, including a brief, disappointing meeting with his father in Tucson, and his unlikely friendship with an irritable, shiftless illegal, Enrique (Eugenio Derbez), who gradually warms to the boy and in the end makes a great personal sacrifice on Carlitos’s behalf. The ending is feel good, a highly improbable connection between mother and son at the corner by the pay phone where she had called him every week.
The story unfolds with sufficient suspense to easily sustain one’s attention. The photography is lush and imaginative. The actors are uniformly outstanding. Of greatest importance, there are no stereotypes here, not one clichéd Mexican character. Adrian Alonso is appealing and believably courageous, not the dreaded ‘cute kid’ actor. With additional strong supporting turns by Gabriel Porras, as Paco, Rosario’s love interest, the veteran actor Carmen Salinas as Dona Carmen, “La Coyota,” and the band Los Tigres del Norte serenading Carlitos and Enrique in a van driving north. (In case you think the band’s presence is a bit contrived, be aware that anyplace you go in Mexico, even on the lowliest local bus, musicians are forever popping up to entertain.) For Patricia Riggen, who won several awards for two earlier short films, this is her feature film directing debut. She"s someone to watch in the future for sure. (In Spanish & English). Grade: B+ (01/30/08)
Add: In her résumé, Ms. del Castillo lists the following athletic skills: gymnastics, swimming, cycling, yoga, snow skiing, water skiing, basketball, scuba diving, bareback & side saddle horse riding, surfing, sky diving, extreme sports, aerobics, martial arts, skateboarding, tennis, snowboarding, rollerblading and ice skating. Her list of performance skills includes: diving, salsa, disco & club/freestyle dancing, firearms, motorcyclist, host, stunts, precision driver, improvisation and comedian. Oh, yes, she’s also a splendid actress and drop dead gorgeous. Whew!
UP THE YANGTZE (Yung Chang, Canada, 2007, 93 m.). A documentary that presents the profound ironies of China’s “progress,” as exemplified by construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. The film opens with a still quoting a Confucian proverb: "There are three ways to learn wisdom: by reflection, which is noblest; by imitation, which is easiest; and by experience, which is bitterest." There are no talking heads in this film. There is no gawking at the engineering marvels of the dam: in fact we don’t even see the structure except at the end, when we get a shadowy nocturnal glimpse of a ship traversing one of its locks. Instead this bold film explores the dislocation of 2 million people from their traditional villages and occupations (farming, fishing) by focusing on the hardships imposed on a single family -- father, mother, Yu Shui, their teen daughter, and her two younger sibs -- who live in poverty in a shack on the river that will soon be inundated as the river level gradually creeps higher. Their bitter experience becomes our own.
Intercut with scenes of the family, and their eventual departure to higher ground in an alien town, are scenes in stark contrast: well off Anglo tourists (from Canada?) aboard a sumptuous cruise ship plying the river, offering “farewell tours” of the gorge (an unseen narrator intones that these tourists have come to see a China that no longer exists; for perspective, he asks viewers to picture the Grand Canyon as a vast lake). Tying these two narratives together is Yu Shui’s experience of obtaining work aboard one of these ships. We eavesdrop on an orientation session at which an official coaches new workers: 'Don’t refer to anyone as old, pale or fat - plump is a more acceptable term;' 'Don’t be too deferential: passengers may think you are being false;' 'Don’t compare Canada to the U.S.;' 'Don’t talk about Quebec’s independence.'
We learn from Yu Shui’s father that unless a family can afford to bribe officials, they are in many cases beaten or dragged physically from their homes. We see the Yu family laboriously moving their possessions up steep masonry inclines to a road to town, where they will now have to pay money for vegetables and water, something they’d never before had to do. In the face of all of this dislocation, an older Chinese man is heard extolling the successes of the “new” China. If there is anything important that is missing from this film it would be a more probing account of such matters as the new living conditions for displaced people, and the fate of ancient monuments and the like in areas to be submerged. Instead such issues are referred to impressionistically, more as footnotes than things focused upon.
Yung Chang, a Canadian filmmaker who lives in Montreal, has traveled extensively in China. This is his first feature length documentary, which he wrote as well as directed (he had made two short docs previously). Yangtze was nominated for best documentary at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival and at Sundance, and received an award as best Canadian documentary at the Vancouver IFF. (In Mandarin & English) Grade: B+ (02/07/08)
THE VIOLIN (El Violin) (Francisco Vargas Quevado, Mexico, 2005, 98 m.). SPOILER ALERT! An easily comprehended, stripped down, almost minimalistic drama, shot well in black and white, about an episode during an indigenous peasant revolt somewhere in Latin America. There’s no platitudes or preaching, no obsessions with historic details of any particular revolution (indeed, the film is ahistoric), we don’t even know the country. It could be any one of several in Central or South America, or even in southern Mexico. Zacarías (Actavio Castro) is a guerilla leader, concerned with logistics, materiel, preserving the safety of his forces, opportunities to strike against the army units in the region. While he is away on a mission, soldiers assault his village, killing, burning, raping, torturing: the usual mix that is official state terrorism (though always called counter-terrorism).
Among those escaping this fate, the villagers who got away before the soldiers arrived, is an old man, Zacarías’s father, Don Plutarco (Don Angel Tavira), a slight man with prune wrinkled skin who plays the violin, to any stranger’s surprise, since he is missing his right hand, amputated at the wrist long ago for reasons left unspecified. Turns out he has a strap attached to his bow that he can wind round this wrist, and thus do a fair job of bowing: not great but passable. And he makes up for compromised technical skill by playing with sensitivity. One day not long after the army’s occupation, Don Plutarco ventures back to the village. What he wants is to get permission to go out to his fields where there is buried ammunition his son’s men need.
What he gets is the keen attention of the army CO, a Lieutenant (Dagoberto Gama) who loves Plutarco’s playing (Plutarco has brought his violin along to leave in the ground when bringing ammo out in the case). What’s more, the Lieutenant requests, no, make that commands, Plutarco to teach him to play. Thus a precarious dance ensues, which is the heart of the drama, as these two whip smart men find common pleasure in music while all the while entirely distrusting one another, as enemies in war must do. I needn’t spoil things for you regarding the resolution of this dilemma. But it is instructive that the film ends showing Don Plutarco’s grandson playing the old man’s instrument, busking on the street for handouts. We are left with the thought that revolutionary struggle or not, the poor remain poor. For his subtle turn as Don Plutarco, Don Angel Tavira won a Best Actor award at the 2006 Cannes sub-festival known as Un Certain Regard. (In Spanish) Grade: B+ (02/2007)
THE VISITOR (Thomas McCarthy, US, 2007, 103 m.). SPOILER ALERT! Writer/Director Thomas McCarthy, who made the exceptional film, The Station Agent, has created another gem of a film about the precarious lives of immigrants in the U.S., especially those from middle eastern countries. Veteran actor Richard Jenkins, in a career-crowning role, leads a brilliant ensemble in telling this timely, urgently relevant story. Walter Vale (Jenkins) is a chronically depressed professor at a Connecticut college who has never recovered from his wife’s death. He is as stagnant as peanut butter: he hasn’t modified his course syllabus in 20 years, pretends to be working on a book that never progresses, and refuses to go out of his way one iota to assist students or colleagues. It takes extreme urging by his department chairman, nearly to the point of threat, to get Walter to grudgingly go down to New York City to read a paper at a professional meeting on behalf of a sick colleague. Turns out he has maintained a rented apartment there for many years, but hadn’t stayed in it in a long while because he had given up making trips to the city.
Imagine Walter's surprise when he enters his apartment to find it occupied by an exotic couple: a Syrian national and bongo musician, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), and his dazzling Senegalese sweetheart, Zainab, or Esi (Danai Jekesai Gurira). After a bumpy start, this odd trio somehow bond together, and the effects of the young couple on Walter are beneficent, healing. He gets in touch with his former self, opening up, becoming concerned for others, generous of spirit once again, playful, especially moved by learning to play hand drums, tutored by Tarek. All’s well until a chance encounter leads to Tarek’s arrest by the INS. He may be deported. Walter and Esi are frantic about what to do, when who arrives, fresh in from her home in Michigan, but Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbas, the handsome Palestinian actress whom we saw in The Syrian Bride, Paradise Now and Munich). I’ll leave the resolution of Tarek’s dilemma for you to discover. The meat of this film is in the relationships among the members of the ensemble. They are as terrific together as were Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale in Station Agent, another story of the redemption of an embittered man. McCarthy, himself a veteran actor, works exceptionally with his cast; he’s obviously an actor’s director. (In English, French & Arabic). Grade: A (02/14/08)
WAR/DANCE (Sean Fine & Andrea Nix [Fine], US, 2007, 105 m.). Superb documentary about the way in which traditional tribal music (choral singing, dance, instrumental works) is being used in schools in Northern Uganda to help heal the wounds of psychic trauma in displaced orphan children of the Acholi Tribe, following the 20 year purge of that tribe by rebel warriors. The stories and performances of the three principal kids that we follow in the film – Dominic, Rose and Nancy - are both heart wrenching and spellbinding, and the photography is sublime. Longer review may follow. (In Acholi & English) Grade: A- (02/07)
WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: A REQUIEM IN FOUR ACTS (Spike Lee, US, 2006, 255 m.). Spike Lee tells the story of Hurricane Katrina’s toll on the people of New Orleans in this long film made for an HBO miniseries, a highly detailed account of the disaster, its antecedents and its continuing impact on the survivors. Lee has utilized a vast trove of archival footage, shot much new material, and interviewed around 100 individuals – from victims to political leaders and engineers. The version that aired on television consists of four “acts,” spanning 255 minutes cumulative running time; the DVD adds an “act V – Next Movement” – another hour or so composed exclusively of further material from the interviews.
The story, of course, is familiar to all of us in both its broad outline and many of the details presented here. But Lee succeeds in elaborating upon the suffering, frustrations, and often half concealed truths of the story in a manner that far exceeds what came to us through the conventional media, with its usual foreshortened reportage. It is a monumental accomplishment, a journalistic tour de force that is unparalleled in its depth and poignancy. We do learn new things. In one glaring instance, we are told that armed vigilantes formed human barriers to prevent the exodus of those departing flooded areas into a drier, safer place. We see evidence at every turn of the pathetically inadequate responses of local, state and federal government. In particular we get a first hand look at the absurdity of FEMA efforts, especially the horrid trailers that usually have been delivered too late, and, even then, are too often unfit to live in.
We get a fuller picture than before of the flimsiness of the barriers to water surge erected by the Army Corps of Engineers: silly, thin little walls planted with insufficient depth, virtually begging to be knocked down, where instead broad earthen levees were needed. We are confronted by the deep pain of people returning to inspect houses that are beyond repair, filled with ugly piles of goods where once orderly rooms of furniture and other belongings had their place. The insides of these places - piled full of gruesome messes of detritus that once were articles of furniture, appliances and beloved possessions, as if some hostile giant had savagely shaken the places while holding them under water – look horridly alike. The story goes agonizingly along. And we come away wondering whether a disaster of this magnitude, had it occurred in a community not so heavily composed of underclass folks, primarily people of color, would have evoked a swifter, more supportive, and more effective response by government agencies and private insurers.
Many among those interviewed have profoundly troubling stories to tell and several tales of courage and generosity. Among the most memorable voices to me were: UC Berkeley civil engineering professor Robert Bea; composer Terence Blanchard; historian Douglas Brinkley; trial attorney Joseph Bruno; state medical examiner Louis Cataldie; Eddie Compass, N.O. police chief at the time of the storm; Calvin Mackie, engineering professor at Tulane, speaking of the deaths of his parents seemingly brought on by the catastrophe; Wynton Marsalis, who sings a soulful “St. James Infirmary”; Mother Audrey Mason, who tells Barbara Bush a thing or two; Times-Picayune City Editor David Meeks; CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien; Sean Penn, recounting his personal efforts to save people stranded in their homes; actor Wendell Pierce; local radio commentator Garland Robinette; Rev. Al Sharpton; local minister Elder William Walker, Jr.; and, among other displaced survivors, Terence Blanchard’s mother, Wilhelmina; Michael Knight; Phyllis Montana LeBlanc; Judith Morgan and Cheryl Livaudais, who deliver a duet of nonstop slashing criticism of the whole post-storm relief effort; Kimberly Polk, who lost her 5 year old daughter; Michael Seelig…I could go on and on…
Lee’s focus is selective. He touches only lightly on the technical and engineering issues. He offers no real analysis of the political and bureaucratic problems hampering relief efforts. He doesn’t follow the story of the health care crisis, including the virtual shutting down of most local facilities and allegations of euthanasia in several cases. He doesn’t follow people exiled to other cities and states to see first hand how they are faring. He does not mention the jockeying of developers, lobbyists and politicians scheming to make money off the rebuilding process. The material Lee uses to highlight the conduct of civic leaders is closely edited, no more comprehensive than the best news shows offered at the time. No, Lee’s lens remains for the most part fixed on the suffering of the people – black, white, and mostly poor.
The quality of the photography is highly variable, as you expect with footage extracted from myriad sources. The editing is generally very good. The music is a mixed bag. There are famous tunes, like Fats Domino’s “Walking to New Orleans” and, as already mentioned, the traditional “St. James Infirmary” sung by Marsalis. There’s footage of a wonderful funeral band processing along the street in “act IV.” Theme music that reoccurs throughout the entire series is from the recent movie, Inside Man, and was composed by Terence Blanchard, the same man already mentioned among notable interviewees. Blanchard has worked with Spike Lee for years, doing the music on most of Lee ’s film projects. His score in this instance is entirely fitting: it is elegiac, funereal, slowly paced, often rendered with a spare unaccompanied piano. But for some obscure reason Lee’s sound mixer often decides to suddenly ratchet up the volume to the point that it can drown out what interviewees are saying and even feel enervating and painful to the ear. So one must sit with remote control in hand, constantly on the alert to turn the volume down, then later back up, to contend with this odd phenomenon. Despite its selective focus and the sound (music) problem, overall this unique production is one that no informed citizen will want to miss. Grade: B+ (02/03/07)
WHEN THE ROAD BENDS: TALES OF A GYPSY CARAVAN (Gypsy Caravan) (Jasmine Dellal, US, 2006, 110 m.). If you like Roma music (and if you don’t I hope you can be reincarnated until you do; it’ll be worth it) you’ll love this brilliantly crafted documentary film. Director Jasmine Dellal and her two fine cinematographers, Alain de Halleux and Albert Maysles, go on a U.S. tour with five of the very best Romani bands around. Their music is to die for. Here’s a sketch of each group:
Fanfare Ciocǎrlia is a 12 piece brass band from Zece Prǎjini, a NE Romanian village near the Moldavian border. Their music, sometimes referred to as “Balkan funk,” blends Romanian, Roma, Turkish, Bulgarian, Serbian and even klezmer influences. They were featured in the recent German-Turkish hit drama, Head On. Taraf de Haidouks (means band of brigands - or bandits) hails from the Romanian village of Clejani, SW of Bucharest. The players are called lautari, meaning traditional (folk) musicians. They have played with Yehudi Menuhin and the Kronos Quartet. The actor Johnny Depp is a big fan, after working with them in the Sally Potter film, The Man Who Died. He once flew them to his nightclub in LA and paid them $10K to perform (Depp talks about them in this film). Their leader for many years was Nicolai Neaucescu, a droll violin player who busked wherever he went. Ms. Dellal, who was present for this screening, tells a story about when the tour was playing in Berkeley, and Mr. Neaucescu went busking around town. One listener was so moved that he gave Nicolai his gold watch. I had the pleasure of seeing Taraf perform a few years ago at the Vancouver (BC) Folk Music Festival. Between gigs, Mr. Neaucescu circulated through the park grounds playing for tips. In its 25 year history, no previous performer had ever busked at the VFMF. Festival staff - mostly sweet, organic food loving Birkenstockers - couldn’t for the life of them figure out if this was OK.
Antonio El Pipa, a Gypsy Flamenco ensemble from Andalucia, Spain, is led by the dancer Antonio, who was born in Jerez de la Frontera. Performing with the group is his aunt, Tia Juana la del Pipa, whose raw, almost basso voice is as earthy as one can possibly imagine (think Tom Waits here). Maharaja (formerly Musafir) is a song and dance troupe from Rajasthan in NW India. The group is influenced by diverse traditions, including north Indian folk music, Arabic and Sufi. Their star is Sayari Sapera, a gorgeous young man who performs as a dazzlingly costumed female Sufi-style dancer.
Esma Redžepova is probably the best known Rom performer in Europe. Her career spans over 40 years and 15,000 concerts, many of them beneifts for humanitarian causes. Known as “Queen of the Gypsies,” she hails from Skopje, Macedonia, though for most of her career she has lived in Belgrade. She sings with the Teodosievski ensemble, founded by her late husband, Stevo Teodosievski. The couple adopted 47 boys over the years, raising them and teaching them music in particular. Esma, as she is simply known everywhere, has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize for her human rights work on behalf of Romani people, and has received an award from UNISEF for these efforts.
The music these groups create is sublimely exciting, amusing, and full of attitude. In the case of the eastern European groups, there is also more than a touch of what one might regard as a sort of blues. The music is one of two wondrous elements in this film. The other is the superb way in which the film itself is built. Ms. Dellal blends concert footage with scenes of the musicians at leisure or dressing for performances. The msicians delight in getting to know each other.
Ms. Dellal also visits the villages where these people come from. There are remarkable views of the musicians’ homes and families, townspeople, buildings, farm animals, countryside, you name it, in places like Jerez, Zece Prǎjini, rural Rajasthan and Clejani, where the indomitable Nicolai tells us he may build a pool like Johnny Depp’s. The photography and editing are first rate. This is quite a step up for Ms. Dellal from her 1999 film, American Gypsy: A Stranger in Everybody’s Land. That film featured some interesting characters but was not nearly as well made as Caravan. For lovers of music and cultural diversity, Caravan is a film you must not miss. (In Romani, Spanish, various Northern Indian dialects & English) Grade A (Seen in the NWFC "Reel Music" Series, 01/26/07)
WHERE’S MOLLY? (Jeff Daly, US, 2007, 75 m.). Heartwarming documentary about the reunion of a man, Jeff Daly, the filmmaker, with his kid sister, Molly, who had been sent away to an institution for the developmentally disabled and forgotten about for 47 years. Daly clearly establishes the common practice before the 1970s of warehousing severely retarded DD children. In his family, it was Mother who could not accept Molly as she was. And when arrangements were made to send her away at age 3, Jeff was not told in advance. In fact, the subject of Molly - her very existence - was a forbidden subject and remained so for decades, until Daly’s mother died in 2003. The film then shows us, step by step, how Daly probed and solved the mystery of Molly’s disappearance and reunited with her.
One of the problems for families seeking reconnection with DD relatives like Molly is that state laws and regulations in most states bar release of information on the basis of maintaining confidentiality. (The situation is similar to that of adoptees seeking reunion with their birth parents.) Daly and several other Oregon families have succeeded in having these regulations breached - modified in a manner that aids families while also maintaining some confidentiality safeguards for affected members - thanks to the leadership of Oregon state Senator Peter Courtney. The act he sponsored - which became known as “Molly’s Law” - has attracted inquiries from 12 more states interested in initiating similar legislation.
The screening I attended was a world premiere of this film, with both Molly and Sen. Courtney on hand, along with other state officials, affected families and members of ARC, the Association for Retarded Citizens. Mr. Daly is a professional documentarist, his career until now focused on news and sports films. Although it is a relatively short film (75 minutes), Where’s Molly? needs further editing in my opinion. For one thing, we see a bit too much repetitive footage of Mr. Daly himself, as a talking head. The latter part of the story includes some redundant material, going over the same ground about Mr. Daly discovering Molly more than enough. On the other hand, certain revelations, especially concerning the director’s father and brother, could benefit from more expanded coverage. For that matter, more footage of present day Molly herself, interacting with family and others, would be welcome. Grade: low B+ (02/17/07)
THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (Ken Loach, Ireland/UK/others, 2006, 127 min.). SPOILER ALERT! Director Ken Loach, ever in search of poignant stories about social issues to film, this time chooses the early (1920 in the film) Irish Republican Army (IRA) guerilla resistance to oppressive British occupation, a movement that would culminate eventually in the establishment of the Republic of Ireland, but not until 1949. The political upheavals of the time are dramatized in this film by the relationship of two brothers, Teddy (Padraic Delaney) and Damien (the versatile Cillian Murphy). Teddy is a radical IRA leader, while Damien is more moderate, more interested in pursuing medical studies than fighting. However, after witnessing another round of British atrocities against Irishmen, Damien joins Teddy’s cause, until passage of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, a document that further established home rule for most of Ireland, except for six northern counties, which were partitioned off.
Anti-treaty IRA elements opposed the partition and the fact that “southern” Ireland would still officially be ruled by the British King, rather than becoming an independent Republic. Pro-treaty elements of the IRA argued that the treaty was the best deal the Irish could get at the time, and would be a stepping stone to independence. This division is personified in the film by Teddy’s anti-treaty stance and Damien’s pro-treaty sentiments, a difference that pits brother against brother. The excellent screenplay was written by long time Loach collaborator Paul Laverty (My Name is Joe, Bread and Roses, Sweet Sixteen). The acting is first rate: the supporting players as well as the principal characters. The story is tragic, heartbreaking, like so much of the 20th century Irish experience. A fine film, Wind won the Palme d’Or best film award at Cannes in 2006. (In Irish Gaelic & English) Grade: B+ (12/07)
XXY (Lucia Puenzo, Argentina/France/Spain, 2007, 86 m.). SPOILER ALERT! Lucia Puenzo, heretofore mainly a television screenplay writer, wrote and directed this extraordinarily sensitive film about a teenager, Alex (Inés Efron), who suffers from a disorder of sex development (older terms for such conditions were ‘intersexed’ or ‘hermaphrodite’). She has genitalia of both sexes (which we do not see). To escape stigma, her parents have moved the family to a remote seaside town, where the father can pursue his work as a marine biologist, trying to save sea turtles from destruction by industrial fishermen. Things are sort of OK, except that Alex isn’t really happy. She’s a tomboy, basically. She loves working on biology projects with her father. She has a boyfriend but feels sufficiently ambivalent about him that she breaks his nose in a fight one day. Alex is taking feminizing hormones but is deeply confused about her gender identity and sexual preferences.
Alex’s Mom invites another family to spend the weekend. The father is a plastic surgeon who does sex change operations. Both Alex and her father Kraken (the always excellent Ricardo Darin, who appeared in Nine Queens, Son of the Bride, and The Aura) are taken aback by this development…neither seems at all prepared to face this possible course of action. Meanwhile, Alex, who has also indulged in petting with a younger girlfriend, takes a liking to Alvaro (Martin Piroyansky), the surgeon’s teen son, who has come along for the weekend with his parents. At one point Alex seduces Alvaro, an experience unlike any that either party had ever had or perhaps even thought about. Ms. Puenzo treats her subject and her actors with enormous respect. We see the full panoply of reactions: the surgeon’s haughty indifference; the town rowdy boys’ scorn; Kraken’s loving concern; Alvaro’s bewilderment mixed with adoration. This film is a captivating tour de force. Winner of festival awards at Athens, Bangkok, Bratislava and Cannes, and several Argentinian Clarin Awards. (In Spanish) Grade: A- (02/07/08)
Add: “XXY” refers to the abnormality in Klinefelters Syndrome, where the usual XY sex chromosome pattern that creates sexual males is upset by the addition of a second “X” chromosome, thus giving rise to a variety of ambiguous sexual presentations which can vary from feminine to masculine to mixtures. (Normal girls have the “XX” configuration).
THE YEAR MY PARENTS WENT ON VACATION (O Ano em Que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias) (Cao Hamburger, Brazil, 2006, 104 m.). SPOILER ALERT! Ironic, wonderfully scripted story set in São Paulo in 1970, a year when the joy of Brazil’s 3rd World Cup Football Championship was diminished by the dictatorial government’s repression of democratic political processes. Mauro (Michel Joelsas) is the 11 year old son of Daniel (Eduardo Moreira), a Jewish, leftist, politically active opponent of the régime, and Bia (Simone Spoladore), a Catholic who is supportive of her husband but not actively involved like he is. Fearful of arrest with increasing police crackdowns, Mauro’s parents leave him at the doorstep of Daniel’s father’s apartment house in a Jewish neighborhood in São Paulo, telling Mauro that they are “going on a vacation” for awhile, meaning going into hiding.
ZODIAC (David Fincher, US, 2007, 158 m.). Docudrama about San Francisco’s Zodiac serial killer, who murdered at least seven people in the Bay Area in the late 1960s and kept writing anonymous notes to authorities and others until the mid-1970s. The killer claimed in letters to have killed 37 people, but no conclusive proof links him to any deaths beyond the seven that are documented. His identity has never been discovered. For years the leading (and only) suspect was Arthur Leigh Allen, who died in 1992. He was never charged, as there was only circumstantial evidence against him, with no physical evidence linking him to any of the killings. There was no fingerprint or, more recently, DNA match to implicate Allen. The case remains open in San Francisco and several other Bay Area counties. In the film, most of the killings are depicted quite graphically.
The principals in this suspenseful drama are all based on real people associated with the Zodiac killer at the time. They are young newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), Police Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and news reporter Paul Avery, who wrote extensively about the Zodiac (Robert Downey Jr.). Supporting players include Brian Cox (as famed criminal attorney Melvin Belli), John Carroll Lynch (as Arthur Leigh Allen) and Philip Baker Hall (as handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill). Ruffalo and Downey are especially effective. Gyllenhaal’s character is over-the-top sophomoric, a hapless nerd who nonetheless becomes absorbed in the Zodiac mystery and shows a penchant for tracking the details of the case. (In the years beyond those covered in this film, Robert Graysmith went on to become a much published true crime author, writing two books on the Zodiac killer [the screenplay was adapted from one of these], one on the Unabomber, and three more on other murderers.) After a while Gyllenhaal’s Graysmith becomes downright annoying. Perhaps Graysmith was like that in real life, but in the film this character grates enough to reduce the quality of the viewing experience, for this reviewer anyway. Grade: B+ (01/18/08)
ZOO (Robinson Devor, US, 2007, 90 m.). CONSUMER ALERT! This is one of the worst dram/documentaries I've ever seen, not because of its content (beastiality) or its point of view (relentlessly even handed), but because of its abysmal crafting. There is endless visual filler (driving down I-5, driving down another road at night, driving down yet another road in daylight, staring at a murky, nondescript winter sunset, on and on and on), and the plethora of off-screen narrators who are never adequately identified or distinguished from one another, making for insoluble viewer confusion. To his credit, Devor avoids lurid detail; this is not a porn flick, though it alludes to the porn products made by the group. But he does something almost as egregious, telling the story with a pretentious air of pseudo-mystery. Devor, who hails from Seattle, made a good docudrama a couple of years ago, Police Beat. Did he slip here because of the incendiary material? Was he too much in a rush? Or is he just trying to do a little smoke and mirror routine to turn a 50 minute TV piece into a feature length film? Grade: D (02/09/07)