"Microreviews" - alphabetical by film title
THE ACCOUNTANT (Ray McKinnon & Lisa Blount, US, 2001). Brief (38 min), macabre black humorous take on the demise of small farms at the hands of corporate agribusiness. Two nearly bankrupt brothers hire an accountant who helped a friend save his farm. The accountant (played by McKinnon) is a strange fellow indeed: tall and rail thin, dressed in a seedy suit and tie, drives an early 30s rusty pickup, drinks beer nonstop and swills bourbon, smokes like a chimney. He proposes a financial solution that requires torching all the buildings, burning the livestock and murdering one brother's wife to collect insurance. (2001 Oscar winner for best live action short) Grade: B+
AFTER MIDNIGHT (Dopo mezzanotte) (Davide Ferrario, Italy, 2004, 89 min.). This is a wonderfully inventive romantic comedy set primarily within the Mole Antonelliana, a fabulous 19 th century building in Turin that since 2000 has housed the Italian National Museum of Cinema. The love story is a triangular dilemma in which a young woman loves two men and cannot force herself to choose one over the other. Amanda (Francesca Inaudi in her film debut) is a fast food clerk whose life seems to be heading nowhere. Her boyfriend Angelo (Fabio Troiano) is a car thief and control freak who seems more closely bound to his trio of henchmen than to Amanda. Though handsome and charming in his way, he never stays the night and forgets about their dates.
Then one evening Amanda urgently needs a place to stay and accidentally bumps into Martino (Giorgio Pasotti), a solitary cinephile who works and lives in the Museum, located near the burger joint where she works. He takes her in, and things begin to change for everybody. Martino hardly talks at all. For him life on the silver screen is reality, so he sees little point in social ties or even leaving the Museum, except for trips to the fast food place when Amanda’s on duty. He hates the food but buys it anyway as a pretext to be close to her. He is so unobtrusive that she had never before noticed him, but for Martino, she is the dear if distant object of his total affection. He actually creates a film about the history of Turin, embedded within which are shots of Amanda taken from a distance.
Buster Keaton is Martino’s role model for conducting a relationship with a woman. The Keaton formula for success in love necessitates a series of struggles, pratfalls and temporary defeats ending in shy, glancing kisses and handholding. When circumstances dictate that Amanda stay in hiding at the Museum for several days, Martino proceeds to approach her in the Keaton manner. This isn’t exactly Amanda’s cup of tea. Their cavorting over the ensuing days is one of the more endearingly humorous sequences in recent cinema. Once Amanda is reunited with Angelo, he senses immediately that something has changed. He cleans up his romantic act, but his reforms come too late to neutralize Amanda’s affection for Martino. Inspired by watching Buster Keaton take on a gigantic man to win the favors of the woman he loves, Martino comes to challenge Angelo. Priding himself on being ‘principled,’ Angelo proposes that, rather than him and his gang beating Martino to a pulp, the two lovers let Amanda choose between them and abide by her decision. But she will not choose, leading to some amusingly awkward dates for the trio.
The story is narrated by a sage fellow (Silvio Orlando, never seen) who treats the viewer almost as a godlike partner, joining him in enjoying the follies of these three earthlings. Actually it’s four: I’ve left out Amanda’s roommate, Barbara (Francesca Picozza, also making her film debut here), a beautician with horrid hair and makeup who lusts after Angelo and believes that love is always a zero sum game. All four principal roles are well acted. Distinctions in personalities of the characters are made vividly clear. Miss Inaudi is captivating. She is poised - confident, relaxed and natural - in her movements and speech, and has ivory skin, warm almond eyes, and a sweet, simple little smile that charms. But for me there’s nothing quite as sexy as a broken looking nose on a woman (I think of Kristin Scott Thomas, for example), and Inaudi’s marvelous shnozz looks like she took a tough blow sometime long ago, though most likely this feature of her anatomy is genetic.
In fact, the most striking member of the cast is the Museum itself. Built between 1863 and 1889 as a Synagogue, it is one of Europe’s largest masonry buildings. The City of Turin has owned the place since before the turn of the last century, and it was entirely remodeled in the late 90s so that the Cinema Museum could be relocated from the Palazzo Chiablese to these more dramatic quarter. The place has been designed to function something like the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, though it’s much larger and more grand. The dominant feature of the building is a giant cupola. Now a glass walled elevator takes visitors high up into the cupola, from where they can descend, strolling on an inclined walkway that spirals downward past numerous displays on movie themes. The main floor houses a richly upholstered theater for larger screen presentations.
The love triangle is, of course, too unstable to last, and it doesn’t. Things do sort themselves out in the end, in a manner that, in the final scene, poetically entwines the boundaries of reality and cinema in the most visually lovely manner. This film reflects an inspired level of imagination on the part of Davide Ferrario, who wrote as well as directed. Its self-styled connections to great cinema from the past are not for a moment pretentious. This is a respectful hommage, and, besides that, it’s one terrific movie. (In Italian) Grade: A-
AMERICAN MOVIE (Chris Smith, US, 2000). Hilarious documentary about an outrageous character, Mark Borchardt, who aspires to make films. Borchardt, 29, has been making short horror films since age 14 with the volunteer help of his family and friends. Now, rejecting the notion of spending his life working at a regular job for somebody else but desperately aware that he needs to make good soon if he wants to realize his dream of a career as a filmmaker, Borchardt begins "Northwestern," about people he knows whose lives revolve around drinking and independence from the fetters of the mainstream culture. Actually, we never learn much about "Northwestern," a project Mark must temporarily abandon until he raises some cash. This he attempts to do by finishing an earlier project, "Coven," which he thinks will take 2 weeks but in fact takes over 2 years. We get to know his friends (in particular, Mike Schank, a burnt out druggie who is also a fine musician [he does the music for this film] and natural deadpan comedian), his parents, and his Uncle Bill (who is named executive producer of "Coven" having finally given Mark $3K after endless shakedowns by Mark), among others. Borchardt is bright, quirky, loyal to his friends, a nonstop talker, but most of all, he is indefatigable in his pursuit of his dreams, and it is his tireless spirit which provides the underpinning for this film, on top of which the funny situations keep on popping up at every turn. Grade: B+
THE BALLAD OF RAMBLIN’ JACK (Aiyana Elliott, US, 2000). A loving, technically sophisticated and articulate account of the life and music of Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Tells very well a story that is at the very core of folk music: how the songs and the styles of playing and singing are kept alive, passed from one generation to the next, and added to along the way, through the playing and sharing of them: from Hudy Ledbedder through Woodie Guthrie through Jack Elliott to Bob Dylan, in this case. Wonderful songs. Good little interview segments with Arlo Guthrie, Dave Van Ronk, Odetta and others, above all the sense of this rambling restless audacious smart as a whip irresponsible wonderful American minstrel. Grade: A
BARBERSHOP (Tim Story, US, 2002). A long day plays out in and around a south Chicago barbershop where a half dozen barbers (5 black, 1 white; 5 men, 1 woman) preside over a running conversation that is heavily skewed to sex, relationships, trouble with the law and politics, especially race politics. The shop's owner, Calvin (Ice Cube in a fine turn), inherited the shop from his father but can't make ends meet. Besides, he feels bored and has dreams of making it big doing something less mundane. So he sells the shop to a local shyster who plans to turn it into a "gentlemen's club." Only after taking this decision does Calvin begin to see how important the shop is to his friends, his neighborhood and himself. As in any sitcom, everything works out favorably at the end. A subplot in which two doofuses try in vain to heist an ATM machine gets pretty tedious after the first 4 intercuts. The most arresting performance comes from Cedric the Entertainer as Eddie, senior barber in the shop. Eddie never has any customers but he does make the grandest speeches, with unerring political incorrectness, concerning people like Rodney King, O. J. Simpson, Rosa Parks, and even Dr. King. Small wonder this film horrified many liberals, black and white. But the humor and humanity shared among these people are endearing. A fun film. Grade: B+
BASQUIAT (Julian Schnabel, US, 1996) Debut filmmaking effort for painter Schnabel, a dramatization of the short life and celebrity of African-American artist Jean Michel Basquiat, played ably by Jeffery Wright. Schnabel’s insider knowledge of the 1980s New York art scene informs the story and the characters. Many good small roles by fine players, including David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Benicio del Toro, Parker Posey, Courtney Love, Willem Dafoe and Tatum O’Neal, among others. Grade: B+
BEAU TRAVAIL (Claire Denis, France, 2000). In the news lately, we’ve seen U.S. Marines bivouacked in Djibouti, the impoverished little nation on the Horn of Africa, watching for Al-Qaida operatives slipping over from Yemen and carrying out maneuvers in preparation for possible war with Iraq. How much in current context it is, then, to finally see Denis’s film, also set in Djibouti and concerning itself with the life of soldiers, in this case French Legionnaires. Denis may well have seen such folk, having lived part of her early life in Djibouti. This is an often surreal film about the small happenings of day to day life of the Legionnaires. As the title states, it is about the “beautiful labor” of military life, the carefully cultivated routines of in a highly regimented order. We see the men marching, participating in conditioning exercises, ironing clothing, peeling potatoes, dancing with their African girlfriends. There is a plot that involves violence, death and pathological jealousy. But this is primarily a meditation on the more noble, positive, to some degree homoerotic, aspects of life among young soldiers, presented in a lyrical, poetic manner. I cannot come close to giving this film the brilliant review provided by J. Hoberman in Village Voice …look it up on www.mrqe.com. Images from this film continue to impress days later. The most vivid is of a scene at the end, where the sergeant dances alone before a panel of small mirrors, in the disco where we've seen the soldiers dancing often with the local girls. He is dressed in black. The dance begins slowly, haltingly, but the tempo picks up, finally becoming frenetic toward the end. It is a wild and macabre spectacle, a dance of death. Grade: B+
BEHIND THE SUN (Walter Salles, Brazil, 2002). Heart wrenching drama about an intractable, bitter blood feud between two families over land and honor in the Brazilian outback in 1910. Marked for death at age 20, Tonio yearns for the fullness of life in his few remaining days. There is so much to admire in this film! I thought it was far superior to Salles’s last feature, Central Station. The acting! Pacu and Tonio’s parents (José Dumont and Rita Assemany) and Clara’s stepfather Salustiano (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos, last seen as the third man taken in by Darlene in Me You Them) were all outstanding. But my two favorites were Pacu “The Kid” (Ravi Ramos Lacerda) and Clara, the radiant, multitalented young circus performer (Flavia Marco Antonio). It was a feature film debut for each. Lacerda - whose smiling face recalls Harpo Marx - has performed in public theater festivals thoughout his childhood and won this role among hundreds of children who were screen tested. The mesmerizing Ms. Antonio, who expresses more with a silent glance than most young actresses can in a long scene, is in fact a professional circus performer who has toured Brazil and France. She also is a member of Clowns Forever, a Brazilian group dedicated to the study of the clowning art.
The screenplay was adapted from a story by an Albanian author, Ismail Kadaré. Salles collaborated with him. Kadaré’s account is based on an Albanian code governing blood feuds in that country, called the Kanun, for which there is no counterpart in Brazilian history. Salles then turned to a history of blood feuds in Brazil to help guide changes that make the story more culturally authentic. These feuds occurred where civil law did not exist, and were in a sense a substitute for law. Also stunning were the visual images (the director of photography was Walter Carvalho). I conjure these scenes in my mind’s eye: the film opens with a young boy, Pacu, narrating as we see his head black in silhouette against a deep blue black sky walking along in the late night. It is an image that presages the ending of the film. Next a bloody shirt on a line blows in the night wind, animated like a ghost. An image of Clara spinning fast, fast, a blur suspended from a vertical acrobat’s rope. Tonio running fast, fast, chasing his prey through the blur of a wood thicket seen from close up. Another: the frequently observed fork in the road. Fine, fine images. One sour point is the anticlimactic ending, an ambiguous scene showing Tonio wandering alone on a beach. The absolutely perfect ending should have come one scene earlier, when Tonio chose the right hand path at the fork in the road. Not the left hand path traveled by everyone earlier in the film that led to the town, but the other path, the one less traveled. (In Portuguese) Grade: A-
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (Joel Coen, US, 1997). On second viewing this Coen Brothers comedy is better than the first time. Chock full of funny happenings among the eccentric characters played by Jeff Bridges (Jeff Lebowski, "The Dude," a 40ish slacker/stoner/bowler), his sidekick Walter (John Goodman), a hair-trigger volatile Vietnam veteran who packs a gun ("The issue is...Am I Wrong?"), their bowling buddy (Steve Buscemi) and a host of characters they encounter along the way (including Julianne Moore, Peter Stormare, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazzara, David Thewlis, and John Turturro as Jesus, a Hispanic pedophilic bowler who wears a lavender jumpsuit). Grade: B+
BLACK CAT WHITE CAT (Emir Kusturica, Serbia/Croatia, 1998). A friend of Kusturica's describes his films as a blend of Shakespeare and the Marx Brothers. Although it lacks the demonic driving energy of his earlier Underground, this film is filled with madcap, joyous gypsy chaos that features drinking, music, larceny, lots of barnyard animals and a wedding with hand grenades. (In Serbian & Romani) Grade: A-
BLACK AND WHITE (James Toback, US, 2000). This film explores the mutual attractions between young New York City black hip hop musicians and the white upper middle class kids who idolize them. The film is a mess in many ways, like a Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson multi-charactered, multi-storied, too-full film gone wild. There are things here that are unnecessary and distracting. Why include a character like Terry (Robert Downey Jr.), husband of documentary filmmaker Sam (Brooke Shields), who is nonetheless screamingly gay, hitting indiscriminately on every guy he sees? Why the unnecessary, too-coincidental-to-be-true set up of having Mark Clear (Ben Stiller) having been a former lover of Dean's girlfriend (played by supermodel Claudia Schiffer)? But put those problems aside. For also at work here is a compelling story of an important social phenomenon...hero worship by well off white kids of black rappers and their culture, and the corresponding interest the blacks show in these kids and the culture of white moneyed upscale life, which at least some of the blacks perceive as a desirable alternative, or at least a ticket out of the ghetto.
Stiller, as an undercover police detective, delivers one of his better roles here. Bijou Phillips is excellent as Charlie, a young white girl, a sort of ringleader of the groupies who buzz around the rappers. Same for Willam Lee Scott as Will, son of the NYC district attorney, who will do anything to gain the adulation of the rappers. Most of the leading black players are hip hop musicians, not actors. Oli (Power) Grant - producer for the rap group Wu-Tang Clan - is Rich Bower, gangster leader of the black contingent. Raexwon of Wu-Tang Clan is Cigar, his chubby buddy who constantly composes rap lyrics. New York Knicks star guard Allan Houston plays Dean, a corruptible local basketball hero. Mike Tyson plays himself, and actually adds an interesting dimension to several scenes. Toback did not script dialog for the blacks, merely suggested situations and let them talk naturally. (Nor did he tell Tyson ahead that he would have Downey come on to him, so that Tyson's sudden violent reaction was as spontaneous as it was dangerous...a very reckless move by Toback). The photography (by David Ferrara) is stunning...the camera moves forward into every scene and is rarely stationary...it gives the entire film a sense of constant flow. The rapper sound track is fabulous. Definitely an important, if messy, film. Grade: B
BOILER ROOM (Ben Younger, US, 2000). Scam stockbrokers in action. Ferocious, predatory. It’s Glengarry Glen Ross laced with testosterone. Virile cast is led by Giovanni Ribisi (neophyte Seth), Vin Diesel (ace scammer Chris, who has a scruple or two), Nicky Katt (the other ace, who has no scruples at all) and Ben Affleck (Jim, their nasty boss). Some subplots work (e.g., Seth’s relationship with his father, played by Ron Rifkin), others don’t (e.g., a young couple whose marriage comes apart after bad investments). Grade: B+
BOLIVIA (Adrian Israel Caetano, Argentina, 2003). A little gem of a film. Shot in grainy black and white, close up to people most of the time, and almost exclusively set in a small cafe in a lower middle class district of Buenos Aires, this film employs a verite style to such advantage as to suggest it could be a documentary. It intimately captures slices of life - through conversations and a few other incidents - among a struggling group of taxi drivers, food service workers, including an illegal alien, and the restaurant owner. These are people a couple of rungs higher on the social scale than street people, but their situations are precarious and they know it. Freddy, the newly hired immigrant at the cafe, is the only Bolivian here and is clearly of prominent Indian stock. As an outsider, he makes a convenient scapegoat for the troubles burdening Oso, one of the cabbies, a menacing fellow when he's drinking, getting more and more angry and blaming his self imposed difficulties on others. Freddy is a complex fellow in ways common among many underclass men and some problem drinkers. He has come to Buenos Aires to find work to support his wife and young kids back in La Paz, where they have been destitute for lack of income. He misses them so much that he spends 2/3 of a day's wages to call them long distance, speaking tenderly to each person.
On the other hand, one night he blows his wages at a Bolivian dance joint shooting pinballs and buying beers for himself and Rosa, a waitress from the cafe. A Jekyll-Hyde type drunk, he turns from soft spoken, almost courtly man into an aggressive dude on the make, loving Rosa up, suggesting it would be even better to have her roommate at the same time. Jo Ann found his complexities difficult to comprehend and tended to lose sympathy for Freddy. But the juxtaposition of good intentions with bad judgment is all too frequent among underclass men, and part of the reason many can't seem to move away from the edges of society. Colleagues of mine in Los Angeles years ago looked at patterns of seeking relief from psychological distress in the east LA barrio. In that era, women went primarily to curanderas (folk healers). Men went to the tavern. Bolivia is really quite a gripping movie and well played by the entire acting ensemble. As Jo Ann pointed out to me, the film also benefits from the simplicity of its filming. The effect is elegant. The more I reflect on it, the higher my esteem for this film rises; it reminds me of the best work of John Casavettes and Jim Jarmusch. (In Spanish) Grade: A-
BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (Martin Scorsese, US, 1999). Nasty slice-of-urban-life stuff from Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, who adapted a novel by Joe Connelly. Nicholas Cage is Frank, a stressed-out New York City ambulance paramedic who is haunted by flashbacks of a woman he once treated but whose life he could not save. The film is full of lurid episodes involving dopers, alcoholics, victims and perpetrators of violence, the mentally ill, and accident victims. John Goodman (whose even worse stress symptoms lead him to quit), Ving Rhames (who drinks to steady himself, as Frank does) and Tom Sizemore (a sadistic fellow who likes to beat up folks they are dispatched to help) play various paramedic partners who team up with Frank. All offer riveting turns, and Patricia Arquette is also quite good as the daughter of a man Frank has brought to the hospital who keeps on having cardiac arrests. Grade: B+
BULWORTH (Warren Beatty, US, 1998) Riotous political satire, in which a jaded liberal senator (Beatty), having decided on suicide, ends his reelection campaign by speaking truthfully about the duplicitous nature of politics. He falls for a young black activist (Halle Berry) and is drawn into her culture, which leads to some highly amusing efforts at "white rap" speech making. A fine film. Grade: B+
THE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING (Sherman Alexie, US, 2002). Writer of Smoke Signals directs his first film, one that more than fulfills his vision of a poetic statement about contemporary Native American experience, and the pull between cultures. By turns funny, sad and full of fury, it is rough and tumble and not without its flaws, but is also an ironic, inventive, powerful slam production. Grade: B
THE CHORUS (Les Choristes) (Christophe Barratier, France/Switzerland/Germany, 2004, 96 min.). Brilliantly crafted, absorbing tale of the transformative power of choral music and a resourceful teacher to achieve civility within the confines of a dreadful state lockup school for deviant and unwanted boys. The story is told in a long flashback, when a reunion occurs between two men who were in the school together a half century earlier. As their story is recounted, we first meet Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot), a short, balding, failed musician who in middle age has no other prospects than to take a job as supervisor in the prison-like school, run by a sadistic martinet, Rachin (Francois Berleand), who treats his faculty as viciously as the students. The ensuing plot conceit is a familiar one: the steadfast Mathieu gradually wins over the insolent, anarchical kids through music and kindness, as he introduces a choir program to brighten the otherwise dull, steady diet of the three “R’s” and the punishments meted out by Rachin.
This little gem has been a surprise hit, wildly popular both in France and internationally. The choral numbers are sublime, performed by an established French boys’ choir, whose soprano soloist, Jean-Baptiste Maunier, sings flawlessly and acts the role of young Pierre Morhange, a central figure among the youths here. The film is a remake of a 1945 movie, La Cage aux rossignols – A Cage of Nightingales. First time writer-director Barratier was himself a musician: beginning musical studies at age 7, he also sang in a boys choir, and later studied at the Paris Conservatory. He is the nephew of Jacques Perrin, the well-known actor and film producer (Microcosmos, Himalaya, Winged Migration), who here plays the adult Pierre Morhange, now an internationally known conductor, one of the two men who meet at the start of this film to reflect on their experiences long ago. The story is not far fetched. I have personally known of situations in which participation in choral music turned around the troubled lives of teenagers. Amid so many films reflecting indifference, destitution and violence in our world, this one comes to us like a wondrous breath of fresh air. (In French) Grade: A-
THE CIRCLE (Jafer Panahi, Iran, 2001). Gripping drama depicting the criminalization of womanhood in Tehran, by the director of The White Balloon (1995). Film begins in an obstetrical ward, where the new mother's mother is disconsolate because her daughter has borne a girl baby and both will be rejected by the groom's family. From there we go to the street, following three young women whom we later discover have just been released from prison. We trail them on a continuing series of encounters with other women, each of whom is running scared, persecuted, unable to pause for a moment's rest. Panahi does a fine job of building and sustaining tension, and he always keeps his focus on the women, not the male perpetrators of their misery. The circle is many things: the round of the women's stories coming full circle; a particular traffic circle where women are arrested often at night; the entrapping circularity of women's terrible fate in this repressive Islamic culture. A well crafted if distressing film. (In Farsi) Grade: B+
LA CIUDAD (The City) (David Riker, US, 1999). Unusual production and remarkable account of the hardships experienced by immigrant Hispanics struggling to survive in NYC. Between 1992 and 1997 Riker filmed all the material shown here in B&W using as actors and extras only immigrants from various Latin American countries with whom he worked as students in various acting workshops. The resulting film is a series of shorts, each depicting some real life drama of survival of these people. The results conjure memories of the early post-WWII neo-realist Italian cinema. Solemn, powerful tales. (In Spanish and English) Grade: A-
THE COLOR OF PARADISE (Majid Majidi, Iran, 2000). The spellbinding story of Mahammad, a plucky blind youngster, and his ambivalent, self-pitying father. Set mainly in a small, remote village in a gorgeous mountainous area of Iran, the drama introduces us to people and customs far removed from contemporary Tehran. At the end of the term at a school for blind children in Tehran, Mahammad is the only one whose parents fail to come to take him home. Finally after a day or two his father makes a slinking appearance and tries to persuade the school authorities to keep his son. Failing this, he reluctantly leads Mahammad home. There we find Mahammad's loving grandmother and two doting slightly older sisters. We learn that Mahammad's mother died not long before, perhaps a year or two, and that the father has his eye on someone to marry again in a nearby village. Father courts, asks for her hand, brings a dowry, and consent is given by the woman's family. He does not tell them about Mahammad, only about his daughters. He then arranges to take Mahammad to the home of a blind carpenter a distance away where he will live and learn a trade. Mahammad is bitterly saddened but accepts his fate and adapts there thanks to the kind understanding of his mentor. But the grandmother is furious with the arrangements, seeing them as self-serving to the father and detrimental to his son. She leaves home in a rainstorm, is found and brought back home by the father, but becomes ill and dies. The fianceé's family considers this a bad omen and backs out of the marriage contract. At this point the storyline, thus far gripping and well organized, breaks down. The father returns to collect Mahammad (why?), then leads him through a wilderness we haven't seen before (where are they going?), finally crossing a bridge over a wild, raging river. Then, finally, a sequence of stupendously filmed and wildly dramatic scenes complete the film. This is a fine morality tale. (In Farsi) Grade: B+
CROUPIER (Mike Hodges, UK, 2000). A psychological drama about Jack (Clive Owen, Bent), son of a gambler in South Africa, literally born in a casino, who tries to shed his past by moving to London where he aspires to be a novelist. He lives with Marion (Gina McKee), a former police detective who now is a department store dick, a rather straight woman whom he calls his "conscience." Strapped for cash and blocked in his writing, Jack reluctantly acquiesces when his father calls to say he's lined up a job for his son in a London gaming club. Back in the gambling atmosphere, Jack excels as a skilled, experienced croupier from his South Africa days. A highly principled professional, he nevertheless finds himself pulled irresistibly into the amoral, at times even ruthless, yet alluring life surrounding the work, violating the rules forbidding fraternization with staff or patrons, especially after he meets two provocative women, the mysterious gambler Jani (Alex Kingston), and the sexually bold Bella (Kate Hardie), another dealer. He also begins to write again, this time about "Jake," an unprincipled croupier who seems more and more to represent Jack's darker side. It is Jack's internal struggle - between attempting to live up to a high moral standard versus the lying and cheating style of the inveterate gambler - that is the central story here, and it is well informed. External events, especially near the end, fit together less well, and make for a sort of helter-skelter ending. The screenplay (by Paul Mayersberg) and the visuals are spellbinding...wonderful camera angles abound, and the result is an atmosphere thick with the tensions and false glitter of casino life, made more real here than in any film I can recall. Grade: B+
THE CUCKOO (Alexander Rogozhkin, Russia, 2003). Late in the summer of 1944, in the scrubby woods of Lapland, in northern Finland, the vagaries of war bring together three people who each speak a different language and cannot understand one another, in this inventive, well acted, engaging antiwar fable. Veiko (Ville Haapasalo), is a Finnish sniper (Finland is still allied with the Germans) who is turned upon by his compatriots for a being a pacifist. As a punishment, he is left in shackles, his chains nailed into a huge rock, wearing a German SS uniform. Thus abandoned, Veiko knows that he faces almost certain death, because advancing Russian soldiers have orders to shoot Germans on sight . Ironically, he is left with a rifle and several live rounds, so that with luck he can kill a few Soviets before he dies. The Russians have a term for these “condemned” or “suicidal” snipers – they call them “kukushkas” - cuckoos. Meanwhile, nearby, a middle-aged Russian army captain, Ivan (Victor Bychkov), is arrested for writing poems thought to express anti-Soviet sentiments. In fact he is simply embittered and exhausted by the war and writes to sustain his spirits. On his way to face a court martial, Ivan's jeep is hit by friendly fire, killing his guards and wounding him. Soon Anni (Anni-Kristiina Juuso) shows up. She’s a Lapp woman who tends a small reindeer herd and scratches out a subsistence living on a humble seaside farm. She rescues Ivan, and soon thereafter Vieko shows up at her farm after using his wits to free himself. Despite Vieko’s protestations, Ivan assumes that he is a German soldier and makes several thwarted attempts to kill him. Anni is plain horny after four years without a man and is delighted to host these two fellows, albeit there is a strong ripple of jealousy at first, when Anni chooses the younger Vieko as her first bed partner. There is a rich vein of humor running through the story, as these three characters talk at cross purposes over and over again. The limits of language are juxtaposed with the common thread of war weariness that all three experience and share. Cuckoo is beautifully filmed and, in addition to its wry tale, it offers remarkable glimpses of life in a remote culture as well as an enactment of archaic Lapp folk healing rituals that is spellbinding. I should add that Ms. Juuso steals this movie. She is beguiling and poised. The calm, frank, matter of fact style in which her character accepts these men permits them to gradually shed their tensions in a way that is believable. This is Rogozhkin’s second excellent antiwar film, following his 1998 work, Blokpost (Checkpoint), shown at PIFF 23, a more contemporary story about the ironic contrast between endless boring daily routines and sudden death, among a group of Russian soldiers stationed along a road at the Chechnyan border. (In Russian, Finnish and Sami, the language of Laplanders, the only indigenous people in Western Europe). Grade: B+
CYCLO (Tran Anh Hung, Vietnam, 1997). Tran’s second feature, following Scent of Green Papaya, is much better. Set in contemporary Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), it is a story of the many intrigues and also the mundane details of daily life for ordinary folks in this energized place. Everyone hustles every minute to survive, which makes for edifying, fascinating narrative. The depiction of this effort and the dazzling colors everywhere give this film memorable impact. (In Vietnamese) Grade: A
DANCEMAKER (Matthew Diamond, US, 1998) A penetrating and completely absorbing look into the artistry and personality of modern dance choreographer Paul Taylor. With spellbinding performances by his dance company, and the special thrill of watching a new dance emerge, from first rehearsal to premier performance. The camera work and editing of this dance - "Piazzolla Caldera" - sensationally and intimately capture the spirit of the work. Grade: B+
DINNER RUSH (Bob Giraldi, US, 2001). Louis (Danny Aiello), an aging Manhattan Mafioso, is trying to shed the last of his illegal activities (a bookmaking outfit) to complete his transition to respectable businessman. After all, under the guidance of his son Udo (Eduardo Ballerini), the celebrity chef, his restaurant Gigino (Louis’s boyhood nickname) in Tribeca, which he founded 25 years ago, has now become one of the trendiest places in town, lucrative to the point where he can net several hundred K annually, though personally, Louis despises the nouvelle cuisine now served up there, longing instead for spaghetti and meatballs. Conditions sour when some nasty upstart gangsters from Queens decide to horn in on Louis’s action. They gun down one of his best friends. Much as Louis dreads it, revenge is called for. This story is intermingled with many scenes depicting high society dining in contemporary NYC. In fact most of the film takes place over the course of a single evening at the restaurant. The complex, frantic kitchen scenes ring true to the descriptions of such places written up in the New Yorker in recent years. They should. The director is himself a haute restaurant owner – in fact the film was made at his place, named Giraldi’s. The snobbish poseurs who make up a significant slice of the clientele of such eateries – the art dealers, restaurant critics, and other celebrity denizens of $250 entree dining – are neatly skewered here. There are also side stories of love and conflict involving various supporting characters. The story almost literally sizzles along. This is a remarkably imagined and crafted film, quite brilliant in screenplay and editing. With good acting turns by a number of players, anchored ably by Aiello in one of his better efforts. It’s a super sleeper! Grade: B+
DIVIDED WE FALL (Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic, 2001). In 1943 a Czech couple hide a Jewish death camp escapee. An oafish local official proves to be an unlikely benefactor to all of them. Like Benigni's Life is Beautiful and Mihaileanu's Train of Life, this film pokes fun at the Holocaust. Because its humor is far blacker, with a tense, life and death edge, this film is superior to the others (see longer review under “Psych Films” titled “Humor and the Holocaust”) Grade: A-
ELECTION (Alexander Payne, US, 1999). Matthew Broderick returns to high school for the first time since 1986 when, as Ferris Bueller, he was the student from Hell. This time the tables are turned. His teaching career is threatened by the machinations of an unscrupulous, blindly ambitious student (Reese Witherspoon). She will stop at nothing to become student body president. The film is very funny, but also imparts an odd sense of justice, one based on private rather than public restitution. Grade: B+
THE ENDURANCE (George Butler, US, 2001). Butler took Frank Hurley's original footage of Shackleton's 1914 antarctic expedition (used exclusively to make the film South) and added new landscape footage, revealing interviews, animated maps and a stellar musical score, thus creating a brilliant account of this near-mythic tale of human survival. Grade: B+
FAST, CHEAP AND OUT OF CONTROL (Errol Morris, US, 1997). Morris has become a master of documentaries about quirky people. Here he interviews 4 people with offbeat occupations: a lion trainer for the circus, a topiary gardener, a man who studies African mole rats, and a scientist who creates robotic insects. Morris uses unusual camera angles, inventive interviews and fine editing to arrive at his final, seamless products (his techniques are brought to a shining apex in the more recent Mr. Death – see under candidates for Best Films Ever Seen). Freud said that the essential features of a healthy life were strong attachments to love and work. Utter devotion to work is on display here. One is mesmerized by the imagery, the talk, the music, in this meditation on our devotion to and need for occupation. Grade: A-
THE FAST RUNNER: ATANARJUAT (Zacharias Kunuk, Canada, 2002). Astonishing recreation of an epic Inuit tale of spirit possession, jealousy, betrayal, rivalry, murder, courage and retribution. Filmed in the Canadian Inuit province of Nunavut by an all-native crew and cast. Details, amenities and other features of a daily life now long gone are entirely absorbing, like the dazzling daylight that passes through the ice to illuminate a tall igloo. The film is 3 hours long but seems shorter. (In Inuktitut). Grade: A-
GENGHIS BLUES (Roko Belic, US, 2000). Quick, now, what’s the capital of Tuva? Why, it’s Kyzyl, of course. You knew it all along. And where is Tuva? East of the Sun, northwest of Outer Mongolia, you quickly answer. Correct! And a part of Russia these days. Once, in the 1930s, it was independent and issued its own postage stamps (Touva it was spelled back in the glory days). This is the way out story of San Francisco’s own Paul Pena, blind grandson of West African immigrants from Cape Verde. Pena has sung blues and played backup guitar alongside the likes of T. Bone Walker, Muddy Waters and B. B. King. Pena also taught himself how to do Tuva throat singing by imitating what he heard on recordings. This eventually led to an invitation to attend a Tuvan throat singing festival in 1995. His host was designated Tuvan national artist and master throat singer Kongar-ol Ondar, an extraverted shining personality and performer who first met Pena while touring the US. Much of the film follows Pena and Ondar on tour in Tuva. It is colorful to say the least. Adventuresome if a bit rough in places. Both are terrific throat singers, and Ondar’s immensely caring attitude toward Pena is an incredibly touching aspect of the film. (In English and Tuvan) Grade: B
GHOST DOG (Jim Jarmusch, US, 2000). This is a sort of kinky inversion of the standard mafiosi gangster film in which a black conract hitman for the mob is a modern day devotee of Samurai philosophy and lifestyle. Ghost Dog (Forrest Whitaker) is the self styled Samurai warrior. He is retained by a New York mob family don who sends instructions about each job to him via one of Ghost Dog's carrier pigeons. After a particular hit job, others in the mob find reason to want to eliminate Ghost Dog, and he must somehow contend with this threat to his life. Along the way we meet his "best friend," the Haitian ice cream man, and a young girl with whom he shares samurai reading material. The gangsters are the great bit part players we've seen through recent years in other mafiosi films, and they are all wonderfully wicked. The soundtrack by rapper RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan is perfect, especially the meditative keyboard work. One of Jarmusch's most consistently absorbing, uniformly well paced films. Grade: B+
GIRL ON THE BRIDGE (Patrice Leconte, France, 2000). LeConte likes to film kinky love relationships and has done so again here. A wonderful fable about love, luck, life and death. It's the latest variation on the story of the worldly wise tramp who meets the gamin, the film theme made famous by Charlie Chaplin. And this version is ingenious and spellbinding. Daniel Auteuil is Gabor, a down and out circus knife thrower who contemplates suicide. At the side of a bridge where he might jump, he meets Adele (Vanessa Paradis), a young nymph whose impulsive infatuations have led her to one heartbreak after another and who is also on the verge of jumping. Buoyed by her vitality and beauty, Gabor encourages Adele to team up with him, and suddenly their mutual fortunes turn positive. They get lucrative venues for their act. Telepathically Gabor guides Adele to win repeatedly at roulette. Their knife throwing act becomes highly eroticized for them both, but Adele keeps straying to other men for sex, and they finally part. Slowly Adele comes to realize that she was more fulfilled with Gabor than with the others and she finds him, just in time, in Istanbul. Beautifully photographed in black and white, with many wonderful camera angles. Very funny. Superb performances by Paradise, the captivating gamin, and by Auteuil, whose subtlest facial movements and eyes can suggest deep melancholy or desire or both at once (Auteuil won best actor honors at Cannes 99 for this role). (In French) Grade: A-
GOOD KURDS, BAD KURDS: No Friends but the Mountains (Kevin McKiernan, US, 2000). Freelance journalist McKiernan, aided by cinematographer Haskell Wexler, spent 9 years making this film, a story that began when he was covering Saddam's purge of the Kurds in northern Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991. He discovered that just across the Turkish border a much larger war was being waged by the Turkish government against the Kurds there, and he has followed that story since, a journey that has taken him into the borderland mountains to interview rebels of the PKK, to Lebanon to interview the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, not long before his capture and trial, to western Europe to interview European Union officials who are pressuring Turkey on ending human rights violations as a condition for membership in the EU, to Washington DC, where it is clear that our government is swayed against the Kurds in favor of the Turkish government (we have provided $7B in weaponry used largely against the Kurds, and we urge northern Iraqi Kurds to fight against their PKK brothers in the mountains. The Turks have displaced over 2 million Kurds from over 4,000 villages and burned them (there are 12-15 million Kurds in Turkey, a total of 35 million in the cultural area they refer to as Kurdistan, spanning across SE Turkey, S Russia, W Iran, N Iraq and E Syria). A fifth of the Turkish parliament are Kurds. but none is even allowed to declare that they know how to speak the Kurdish language, and one member, a woman, has languished in prison for 8 years for addressing the legislature in Kurdish, so great is the effort at forced assimilation. McKiernan's odyssey eventually takes him to a Kurdish family living in Santa Barbara CA, and one son who eventually moves to Waashington DC to become a lobbyist for the Kurds, Kani Xulam, a slight Ghandiesque man of 40, very articulate, who has carried on for years in spite of INS and State Department efforts to deport him, urging members of Congress and others to take up the Kurdish cause. His first supporter was Oregon's Elizabeth Furst, who, among other things, visited him every morning during a 40 day fast he endured on the Capitol steps to dramatize the cause. An incredible surprise was Kani's appearance at the Guild after the film to speak and take questions. He is a remarkable man. Grade: B+
THE GOOD THIEF (Neil Jordan, US, 2003). Bob (Nick Nolte) is a rough and tumble gambler living in Nice, possibly the aging son of a WW II GI father and French mother, down on his luck and strung out on heroin. He’s cunning when his head is screwed on straight, and he’s also a decent fellow, someone whose money is as apt to slip through his fingers to help a friend as to be lost at the track or the tables. He can count many loyal supporters among his close acquaintances, from skillful criminals to grateful women and even Roger (Tcheky Karyo), the cop who almost reluctantly must shadow Bob when he detox’s and is suspected of planning a major heist at Monte Carlo. The film has the feel of Jordan’s great work, The Crying Game. The setting is the hip demimonde – the fleshpots, dancehalls, cons, fights and loves - of the underworld. The pace is fast: the film moves at a supercharged tempo through arresting visual compositions and splashes of vivid color, augmented by a soundtrack full of hyperkinetic music composed by Eliot Rosenthal that seductively pulls you into the action (and a long, riveting rendition of ”A Thousand Kisses Deep” by Leonard Cohen). All the principal characters are strongly etched and refreshingly unalike. Besides Bob and Roger, here’s Raoul, the steady older thief who needs Bob’s brilliance and connections; Paolo, Bob’s fiery young protégé; Said, the desperate young Algerian threatened with expulsion from the country unless he cooperates with the police. Best of all there’s Nutsa Kukhianidze from Georgia (the one south of Russia) as Anne, a contradictory young woman - sly, sexy, self-possessed yet vulnerable - trying to eke out an existence doing whatever. These actors form a completely absorbing ensemble. The relationship that emerges between Bob and Anne - based on tenderness, mutual respect and lack of exploitation - has much in common with the relationship Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson created in Lost in Translation. As if these ingredients were not enough, there is a wonderfully convoluted heist plot and several delicious cameo performances by the likes of Emir Kusturica, Ralph Fiennes and the Polish Brothers. By at least a cut or two, this is one of the best among recent heist films - better than The Score, Heist or Sexy Beast, and on a par with Read My Lips. Grade: B+
GRATEFUL DAWG (Gillian Grisman, US, 2001). Bluegrass mandolin virtuoso David Grisman and Dead leader Jerry Garcia were great friends who often jammed together and gave occasional public performances. This film, lovingly made by Grisman's daughter, shows ample footage of music making in both informal and performance settings, along with interview segments with Bela Fleck and others. It's a hoot. Grade: B+
GROSSE POINTE BLANK (George Armitage, US, 1997). Martin Blank (John Cusack) is a professional assassin who comes home to the elite Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe for his 10 year high school reunion. Well, that’s not quite right. He comes to Detroit on a hit job, and his visit happens to coincide with the reunion, which he is in fact reluctant to attend. But he reconnects with high school flame Debi (Minnie Driver), now a local radio dj, and invites her to accompany him to the party, in part to make up for having stood her up 10 years earlier for their senior prom date. Their love is rekindled amidst a hail of bullets when Martin is separately ambushed by his rival hitman, Grocer (Dan Aykroyd), government agents, and a nasty sort who was also in the graduating class. The identity of Martin’s intended victim is unknown to him until near film’s end, and it comes as quite a surprise. This film is a comedic delight. Driver and Cusack make a sparky couple. He’s a fine comic actor, but Driver’s ability to keep up with him is unexpected. There are numerous tiny scenes at the class reunion that have an all too realistic quality of forced conviviality and the arousal of old conflicts among various classmates. Screenwriter Tom Jankiewicz obviously has been to a reunion or two of his own. Alan Arkin has a small but hilarious role as Dr. Oatman, Martin’s psychotherapist back in LA, who is terrified of Martin and keeps trying unsuccessfully to end the therapy relationship. Arkin’s psychiatrist is in the same predicament as Billy Crystal’s therapist was treating Mafioso Robert DeNiro in Analyse This. Cusack’s sister Joan lends an amusing hand as Martin’s secretary, ever fretful about his occupation. Grocer’s arguments with Martin about organizing a union for hitmen are also fun, especially at their breakfast encounter in Grosse Pointe. Watching Aykroyd’s dazzling delivery here makes me long for him to do more comedy again and forget the far less impressive dramatic roles he’s opted for in recent years. This film keeps right on moving: Martin’s fast paced adventures never suffer a letdown. It’s one steady hoot, even on second viewing (August, 2004). Grade: B+
HANA-BI (Fireworks) (Takeshi Kitano, Japan, 1998) Renaissance man Beat Takeshi (writer, filmmaker, painter, TV talk show host and more) wrote, directed and stars in this pensive film of a taciturn man keeping a vigil with his dying wife. Although the role Takeshi plays is typically violent , he shows the extent of his range in quiet scenes with his wife. (In Japanese) Grade: A-
HANDS ON A HARDBODY (S. R. Bindler, US, 1998). In an East Texas town each year, a local car dealership offers a free $15K truck with all the accessories to whichever contestant can stand up the longest with his/her hand touching the truck. There are 5 minute breaks each hour and 15 minute breaks every 6 hours. Bindler has succeeded in transforming this crass event, similar to the dance survival contests of the 30s, interesting drama. What holds things very much together are the comments of Benny, a contestant who had previously won the event 2 years earlier. Grade: B+
HAPPY, TEXAS (Mark Illsley, US, 1999). That all too rare find: a wildly funny comedy. Jeremy Northam and Steve Zahn are escaped cons masquerading as coordinators of a small town kids beauty pageant. These people are truly mad! Zahn's scenes as a dance coach rank among the funniest on film. Grade: B+
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (John Cameron Mitchell, US, 2001). The New Yorker called this film "trash perfection." It's a mock biopic of a transsexual rocker. It's an inspired knockoff of David Bowie's 1973 glam rock Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It's a romantic musical in which the lovers are the two components - male and female - of the star's own narcissistic divided self. It's an adaptation of a hit off-Broadway show. It's all of the above and vastly entertaining. Created by and for Mitchell, who is an interesting, flamboyant fellow, fun to watch, a riveting performer whether acting or singing. The story, such as it is, traces Hedwig's roots in East Berlin, son of a GI dad and German Mom whose disturbed personality drives her man away. The son is turned on to sex with men by another GI, who marries Hedwig after his sex change op. Dumped by this fellow, Hedwig finds love with another gorgeous young man, who goes on to become a rock celebrity and leaves her. Spiteful, bitter, but still hoping for a reunion, Hedwig follows this fellow on tour from city to city, where she playing dismal little venues with her band ("The Angry Inch" - the name alludes to the botched operation to remove her penis). The band, by the way, is terrific. The songs, created by Mitchell and Stephen Trask, are very well done. This movie is high energy from start to finish. Grade: B+
HIGH FIDELITY (Stephen Frears, US, 2000). John Cusack is perfect as Rob, an unambitious thirtysomething proprieter of a Chicago used record shop, whose life seems to be going nowhere when Laura, his five year long live in lover, a spunky young attorney (Iben Hjejle) leaves him. He tells us the story of the "top five" relationship breakups of his life, speaking, as he often does throughout the film, to us, i.e., directly into the camera. And it always works, thanks to Cusack's special offhand manner. His friends and employees at the shop - the shy, shaven headed Dick (Todd Louiso) and the fat, logorrheic smart aleck Barry (Jack Black, in real life the lead singer in the rock band Tenacious D) - are hilarious as perpetually adolescent pop culture mavens. The actresses portraying Rob's old lovers are less successful in cameo roles, but Hjejle finds the right blend of tenderness and self- assertion in her larger role. And Joan Cusack is terrific as Laura's friend, a major scold. John Cusack is wonderful as a sort of 90s urban American young white Everyman. This film is fun. Grade: B+
HUKKLE (Gyorgy Palfi, Hungary, 2003). If you want a break from the usual menu of emotional sturm und drang films (hic), something to rinse your cinepalate between the more dramatic film tastings (hic), here's a film the likes of which (hic) you’ve never ever seen before. (Hic!) An old man in a rural town seems to suffer from nonstop hiccupping. (Hic!). Is it voluntary, perchance (hic)? We can’t tell. Is hiccup what hukkle means in Hungarian (hic)? Who knows. There’s a lot of goings on among the animals in the region, and the plants, and the people, and even the machines. (Hic!) We’re treated to myriad close-ups capturing the action – long on textures, movements, colors and sounds (hic) of snakes, sheep, stud hogs, ladybugs and more (hic). Everything and everyone seems intent on matching the rhythms generated by the old man's diaphragm (hic). There are murmurs of conversation in the background at times (hic), but basically there is no dialogue in this (hic) sensate production. Apocalyptic events do occur. There are your basic torrential rains. And an earthquake (hic). And a jet fighter fly-by that stops dead still in mid-run, suspended over a stream. And people are dying in droves. (Hic.) Well, specifically, it is adult men who are dying. Why? (Hic!) Described in PIFF hype as “Twin Peaks meets Microcosmos,” this film is daffier by far than either. Try it! (Hic!) If you can find it. (In Hungarian) Grade: B
HUMAN RESOURCES (Laurent Cantet, France, 2000). A moving, personalized story of tensions in the contemporary corporate world between management and worker interests. Franck, a college student home from Paris for the summer, is accepted as a management trainee in the personnel department at the factory where his father has worked on the assembly line for 30 years. The company is recovering from an unprofitable period by downsizing. Full of academic ideals and zeal, Franck enters buoyantly into the mounting conflict over the 35 hour work week backed by management, which union leaders fear will mean more layoffs or at least a demand for more efficiency and greater automation, which amounts to the same thing. He fashions a worker survey about the shorter work week which in effect bypasses and isolates a woman who is the most strident of the union leaders. His bosses are pleased and flatter him, but as he succeeds his relations with some other workers harden. His father, an extremely taciturn man who is quietly devoted to doing his job, is proud of his son but senses the gulf widening between them. (He seems to feel it is inevitable: he even coaches Franck not to be too friendly with the workers.) When Franck inadvertently learns that his father is on a new list for firings, it changes everything. He feels that he, his father and all of the workers have been betrayed, and he joins the union leaders in organizing a militant confrontation and strike. His father is mortified by this turn of events, deeply embarrassed when the senior manager throws Franck out of the plant. Traditional and loyal to the company, and fearful of losing his retirement benefits, the father is one of the workers who breaks through the picket lines. A young black coworker who befriends Franck tells him how much his father has helped him, serving as a role model for the discipline of staying with the monotonous work, day in, day out. But Franck can only feel shame, shame for his father's monotonous dogged worker's life, and shame for being ashamed. The film ends with a question about what the future holds for both young men. (In French) Grade: B+
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2001). Highly stylized story of two neighbors, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), whose spouses are having an affair. They provide comfort to one another without consummating an affair. Wong uses slow motion, music, shadows, rain and repetition to heighten the sense of their longing and loss. The ending is rough and needed more thought. (In Mandarin) Grade: B
THE INDEPENDENT (Stephen Kessler, US, 2002). Raucously funny mocumentary, a sendup of trash moviemakers. Aging schlock director Morty Fineman (Jerry Stiller) is an amalgam of Roger Corman, John Waters, Ed Wood, et al. Laughs keep coming right to the end, aided by Stiller's unwavering dead serious delivery. Fineman's film titles (all 427 of them) at the end are a riot. Grade: B+
JUNG (WAR): IN THE LAND OF THE MUJAHEDDIN (Fabrizio Lazzaretti & Alberto Vendemmiati, Afghanistan/Italy, 2001). Chilling documentary portrait of war: exchanges of fire from tanks and trenches at the front; destruction of towns and dislocation of their inhabitants; starvation and impoverishment; tragic maiming of hordes of people - from combatants to tiny children - by shellings and land mines. This is the real deal. Nothing is staged. Not for the feint of heart. The political story behind the fighting is biased to flatter the Northern Alliance warlords who sponsored the film and the work associated with it, i.e., the establishment of a hospital to treat people with land mine and other traumatic injuries. Filmed in three epochs: Feb-Ap 1999, Aug-Sep 1999, and Feb-Ap 2000. If you are interested in recent Afghan affairs, don't miss it. (In Farsi, Italian and English) Grade: A-
KARMEN GEI (Joseph Gai Ramaka, Senegal/France/Canada, 2002). The story line sort of follows Bizet's Carmen, but the music is West African, featuring dazzling dances and sublime choral harmonies. Djeinaba Diop Gai in the title role is wildly exotic. The film, like most from Senegal, is awash in brilliant colors and designs. Thrillingly sensuous, chaotic and crazy. Grade: B+
KUNG FU HUSTLE (Stephen Chow, China/Hong Kong, 2004, 95 min.). Outrageously funny, frenetically paced martial arts flick by the director of Shaolin Soccer, an immensely popular mart-art film I have not yet seen; critic Shawn Levy says Kung Fu Hustle is better. There’s little point in mentioning the plot. What we’ve got are no fewer than 7 good guys - well, one is a tough, foul mouthed woman who always tricked out in a housecoat and hair curlers with a cigarette dangling from her lips, but when she puffs up to do the “Lion’s Roar,” go hide - operating against a legion of bad guys, The Axe Gang, and their special hired hands, including two string musicians whose pluckings spew forth swords, and a man known simply as “The Beast,” who can morph into a giant frog, among other tricks. Computer graphics generate this and other wacko body morphings in addition to the usual wire-assisted, gravity defying dance duels. It’s a romp from start to finish, though mart-art purists will no doubt be discomforted by all the techie enhancements that don’t bother me one bit. (In Cantonese & Mandarin) Grade: B+ .
LAGAAN: ONCE UPON A TIME IN INDIA (Ashutosh Gowariker, India, 2001). In 1893, a reckless British captain wagers the townsfolk of a village he administers that if his crack military cricket team cannot knock the socks off a ragtag bunch of locals, he will suspend oppressive taxes for three years. It's an offer folks can't refuse. Lavish vintage Hollywood-style production with heroic performances, superb music, extravagant song and dance numbers, and an hour long cricket match that isn't boring. Believe it or not, this movie is great stuff: 3 hours and 44 minutes of nonstop, overwhelming entertainment firepower. (In Hindi) Grade: A-
LA TROPICAL (David Turnley, US, 2002). On the outskirts of Havana, in the black ghetto, is the Salon Rosaro Benny More or Salon Rosaro La Tropical. Either way you say it, this is the Afro-Cuban dance capital of Cuba, if not the Latin American world. Opened on the grounds of a brewery in the late 40s, it is a furious scene of the sexiest, most exuberant salsa dancing you’ll ever see. And the whole wild, wonderful scene is beautifully captured in this film. Turnley not only lets the camera pan around the various bands on stage and dancers on the vast floor (up to 5,000 people may show up for the biggest events). He also hones in on a number of individual dancers and musicians and permits us to see and hear of their lives in a most intimate manner. We also learn about racism in Cuba, how things changed for the better for blacks after the revolution, and how problems still exist. A wonderful flamenco balladeer laments that he will never in his lifetime be able to afford his own guitar (for $120). Very effectively shot in black and white. (In Spanish). English subtitles are provided for all song lyrics, a huge plus. Remarkable film! Grade: A-
LANTANA (Ray Lawrence, Australia, 2001). Samuel Johnson said that "marriage has many pains but celebacy has no pleasures." Substitute "sleeping around" for celebacy and you have the subtext of this story of the ties and strains in domestic relationships of four Sydney couples, with a thriller subplot thrown in. The overriding issues for these people are matters of trust, betrayal, and the difficulties of repair. These folks are all living on the edge, and there is a claustrophobic sense of foreboding that sustains tension throughout the film. Tension is also more concretely propelled by a sinister element. The film opens with views of a body. We cannot be sure who it is. This opening and a suspenseful musical score hook us. The film features a Who's Who of current Aussie acting talent - led by Anthony LaPaglia (as Leon, the detective and central character), Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey - and it is the acting that really gives this film appeal. Especially good are some of the less prominent players: Rachael Blake as Jane, a recently separated, sexually predatory woman who at the same time is not without honor; Daniela Farinacci as Paula, Jane's wonderfully real, happily married neighbor; Kerry Armstrong as Sonja, Leon's love starved wife; and Leah Purcell, in a feature acting debut as Leon's perceptive detective partner. (Lantana, by the way, is a tropical shrub, imported to Sydney, where it has become a thriving nuisance. It has small, colorful blooms and vivid green leaves. This innocent surface, however, hides dense, thorny undergrowth, brambles that grow to 6-8 feet long. As a metaphor the bushes might be likened to people or relationships, with an attractive or serene surface glossing over underlying menace and problems.) Grade: B+
THE LEGEND OF RITA (Volker Schlöndorff, Germany, 2001). Story of the fate of a 1970s west German terrorist and her fellow gang members, loosely based on the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang. After several high profile bank robberies and shootings, culminating in the killing of a Paris policeman, the gang is forced to disband and urged by its East German benefactors to assimilate in the GDR.. Some resist and disappear. Rita Vogt, the central character in this story, agrees and takes on a new name and identity (called her “legend”) in the GDR, and develops new friends. Her cover is blown in time, and she moves on to still another legend in another place, which also is doomed by the constraints placed on her by her terrorist past and by the officials who sponsor her. Finally the GDR falls along with the Berlin Wall, but the consequence of this is that the old government agrees to turn over all known terrorists it has harbored. Rita tries a desperate escape and fails. This is a sad story featuring a finely nuanced performance by Bibiana Beglau as Rita, who is a sad woman. Many things are done well in this film. Rita’s passion is all the more poignant for its understatement. For example, her leftist idealism is not constantly sounded, but is manifest openly in just a single scene not far from the film’s end in a confrontation with fellow workers in an office. During her brief burst of rhetoric, the camera stays close to her face in semi-profile or gazing next to her at the others who listen…very powerful camera work. Thus photographed, this one scene is enough to show us the depths of Rita’s beliefs. Similarly, her lesbian relationship with Tatjana (Nadja Uhl) is tenderly and subtly presented. Rita is so complex: she is an amalgam of carnal and political appetites, devotion to people and causes, and she also is a seriously dangerous person. (In German) Grade: B+
LITTLE ANGEL (Helke Misselwitz, Germany, 1996). Taut love story about a timid, needy German woman (played brilliantly by Susanne Lothar) and her slightly shady yet tender Polish boyfriend, set in the violent atmosphere of an East Berlin tenement. (In German) Grade: B+
LITTLE VOICE (Mark Herman, UK, 1998). By turns hilarious and monstrous, this film shows the underbelly of comedy in a manner reminiscent of Funny Bones. Jane Horrocks captivates as the grieving and exquisitely shy LV (for Little Voice), a teenager who retreats from the hostile, boozy world of her bitter, widowed mother (Brenda Blythen) into the glamorous world of her favorite singers - all from the 40s and 50s - Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, Marilyn Monroe, and so on. The mother's latest boyfriend, Ray, (Michael Caine) notes LV's talent for imitating her favorite singers and lures her to perform in a niteclub hoping to strike it big as her manager. Ewan McGregor, giving one of the best performances of his that I've seen, as an equally shy suitor of LV's, and Jim Broadbent, as "Mr. Boo," round out a marvelous cast. Horrocks impressively sings all her own songs. Caine won a NY Film Critics' Best Actor award for his role. Grade: A
LONG NIGHT’S JOURNEY INTO DAY (Frances Reid & Deborah Hoffman, US, 2000). This film tells four stories from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission's painful effort to build a nation in the post-Apartheid era. The stories concern: (1) Three young black men convicted and serving time for the murder of Amy Biehl, a white American young woman (who was in South Africa to support the black freedom cause); (2) Eric Taylor, a white policemen who confessed to participating with other officers in the murders of 4 black activists (the "Cradock 4"); (3) Robert McBride, a young black ANC guerrilla warrior, who had served his prison term fully after being convicted of participating in the bombing of a white nightclub that killed three women and injured scores; and (4) a black and a white policeman (part of a government trained "death squad") who were among 25 officers who entrapped and murdered 7 young black men. The film combines footage from the TRC hearings with vintage footage surrounding the events themselves and interviews of surviving family members and others with the filmmakers. In the last segment there is a moving encounter between the black policeman, Thapelo Mbelo, and the seven mothers of the men he helped kill, in which he refers to them as "mama" and they to him as "son." Some of the interview scenes arranged for this film are themselves now a part of the history of reconciliation (documentary filmmaking as history). An extraordinary film, very well crafted, featuring terrific indigenous music and excellent narration by Helen Mirren. Grade: A
THE LONG WAY HOME (Mark Jonathan Harris, US, 1997). Oscar winning documentary on the fate of European Jews from the end of WWII in 1945 to the founding of Isreal in 1948. It’s a seldom examined part of the Holocaust experience in which the supposed good guys who won the war are now the perpetrators of Jewish suffering as thousands of refugees remain confined in allied-sponsored camps or aboard nomadic ships at sea. A truly shocking story, very well told. Grade: B+
LOOKING FOR RICHARD (Al Pacino, US, 1996) Pacino has created something here akin to Louis Malle and Andre Gregory’s Vanya on 42nd Street: a film about the informal readings and preparations for a production of Shakespeare’s’ Richard III. But it’s more rough cut, not yet ready for a public performance. The actors sit around a table reading their parts from scripts. We never see the whole play, only parts here and there along the way. In between, Pacino and his filmmaking colleagues prowl around town looking at prospective shoot locations, or talk about the project over lunches. At one point they get a parking ticket and Pacino is incensed. Pacino is forever intense, putting himself totally into the action, as he always does. Ah, but the readings, that’s where this film shines. Pacino plays Richard and is supported by the American players Kevin Spacey, Kevin Kline, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin and Aidan Quinn. Other contributors include: F. Murray Abraham, Kenneth Branagh, John Giegud, James Earl Jones, Estelle Parsons and Vanessa Redgrave. Whew! This is a very exciting film. Grade: A
A LOVE DIVIDED (Sydney McCartney, Ireland/UK, 2002). Story based on real events in 1957. A small rural village in Northern Ireland is wrenched asunder by religious controversy when the Protestant wife of a local Catholic farmer absconds with the couple’s two young daughters rather than give in to the dictates of the local priest that the girls must attend the parochial school. In retaliation, the priest leads a boycott of Protestant businesses that later escalates to closure of the public school, barn burning and violence. The family are ultimately reunited and return to their farm, and church higher ups order the priest to end the boycott. But the wounds among the villagers never really heal. At the end we learn that in 1998, 41 years after these events, the Catholic Church issued an official apology to the town for the destruction caused by the church. What makes the film so wonderful is the uniformly high standard of acting (especially Orla Brady and Liam Cunningham as the principal couple) as well as the beauty of the scenery – scenes shot both in Ireland and Scotland. Grade: A-
LUMUMBA (Raoul Peck, Congo/Haiti, 2000). Superb biopic about the rise to power of Patrice Lumumba and his ever so brief tenure (2 months) as the first Prime Minister of newly independent Congo in 1960. Eriq Ebouaney is perfect as the tightly wound, abrasive, idealistic hero. The drama of his story is clear, but, as Stanley Kauffmann has noted, the political complexities animating this drama are not well articulated. Lumumba's assassination, and Joseph Mobutu's succession as Prime Minister, were events set up by a conspiracy of self-serving interests, including the dear old Belgians, the CIA (first with Eisenhower's blessing, later with JFK's), and the leaders of resource-rich Katanga Province, Moise Tshombe chief among them. The film is, as Elvis Mitchell so aptly described it, "whip smart" - packed with tension and movement. Grade: A-
A MIGHTY WIND (Christopher Guest, US, 2003). Oh, my. How can I offer an objective review of this film? It’s a sendup of the PBS shows in which music from the 1940s to the 60s is reprised, featuring over-the-hill performers who were once popular stars, in taped live concerts usually shown during fund raising drives. These PBS shows, targeting the aging audience who are partial to public television, have featured 40s big bands, pop singers like Frankie Laine or Rosemary Clooney, and 50s Doo-Wop groups, among others. This film is a mock-doc about groups from the golden age of folk music - more specifically, commercially successful folk music - that was so popular from the mid-1950s to the early, pre-rock 60s. This was my music, popular when I was in college and medical school, playing bass notes on my homemade gutbucket. I was in thrall to The Weavers, Bud & Travis, The Gateway Singers (featuring Lou Gottlieb, later a mainstay in The Limelighters, and Travis Edmunson from Bud & Travis), Ian & Sylvia (Tyson), and the original Kingston Trio, anchored by Dave Guard. Among the top five thrills of my life was bumping into Pete Seegar (the energizing soul of The Weavers), banjo in hand, in a little park just below Gracie Mansion on the East River in Manhattan one Saturday morning a few years ago. Pete immediately organized the 3 or 4 of us guys hanging around him into a quartet and we sang some folk tunes in harmony with Pete, while Jo Ann danced with another onlooker. I thought I’d died and gone to….
So here we have a satirical story of old folkies brought back for a latter day encore, invented and performed by Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy and their merry band of pranksters, who previously created This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and Best in Show. The story line is this: an old man, who had been a folk music impresario in the old days, dies. His son Jonathan (Bob Balaban) decides to hold a memorial concert, luckily finds a rare open date in two weeks at Town Hall (read Carnegie Hall) in Manhattan, arranges for the top three groups his dad had managed to perform, and lines up PBN (read PBS) to air the show. The groups are the Folksmen (Guest himself on banjo, Michael McKean as lead singer and guitarist, and Harry Shearer who sings bass and also plays bass), a knockoff of The Kingston Trio and The Limelighters; Mitch and Mickey (Levy and Catherine O’Hara), modeled on Ian and Sylvia; and the nine-member New Main Street Singers (featuring Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins, Paul Dooley and Parker Posey, among others), a takeoff on Randy Sparks and his New Christy Minstrels, and his later group, The Back Porch Majority. Also along for added laughs are Guest mainstay Fred Willard as Mike LaFontaine, the Main Street Singers’ gross manager; Ed Begley, Jr., as the PBN producer; Michael Hitchcock as the Town Hall stage manager; and a number of other comical folks. As A. O. Scott said in his New York Times review, "...it is impossible to think of a group of people capable of being funny in so many different ways.” With so many fine turns, it is hard to choose the best, but my three favorites are Balaban, who does obsessive angst to a tee here; Lynch as an omnivorous former porn queen turned latter day folkie and New Age spook; and, best of all, Levy, who looks just like Jerry Garcia and acts like the world’s most avoidant neurotic.
The film moves briskly along. The editing, by Robert Leighton, is especially fine. Every scene is held just long enough for its intended comic or nostalgic effect, never a second longer. Guest and Levy wrote the screenplay. Guest and McKean wrote lyrics for many of the songs, which are all original. The Folksmen, with the actors as personnel, are in fact a real group, having played and sung together for 20 years. Higgins himself arranged the numbers performed by the New Main Street Singers. The instrument "playing" by other actors has been well coached. The singing is quite good, dubbed in some cases by pros who aren’t credited. The film has been criticized for steering away from politics, when the heart of folk music was political. Well, that's true, certainly for Seegar, Ronnie Gilbert and a host of other fine performers. But not so much among the groups and songs that became commercially successful. A lot of that was fluffier stuff, and it's quite accurately represented here. The fun of this movie derives not only from its host of splendid comic performers, the pacing, and the music, but from the subtle balance that Guest and Levy achieve, walking a thin line between satire and sentiment, between mock-doc cutting up and genuine homage to the music. As Scott notes, they “…resuscitate folk music with sweet natured, loony affection.” Grade: B+
THE MILES DAVIS STORY (Mike Dibb, UK, 2001). Brilliantly crafted documentary on the life and music of Davis, the second jazz trumpeter after Louis Armstrong to fundamentally shape the use of the instrument. (Davis's two other huge contributions: his nurturance of young talent for over 30 years, and the precedent he set for innovation, for never being complacent - he told a sideman in the 1980s that the reason he no longer played ballads was that he loved to play them so much.) The film is graced by numerous interviews, including several with Davis himself in the 80s, performance footage, and stills, all well blended. This work contributes about as much insight as we're apt to get about this extremely enigmatic, private man and the demons that came close to destroying him, while also driving him to unprecedented musical heights. Grade: B+
MULHOLLAND DRIVE (David Lynch, US, 2001). See it for the style, not the substance. The story is unfathomable; trying to figure it out only distracts one from the true pleasures offered here by Lynch. He is a master of the visual - mise en scene - and of the uses of sound: not dialogue, not music, but sound, as in the airy percussive "pooof!" he often uses to signal scene changes. The film is visually stunning, filled with lush settings in nearly every scene. Lynch evokes a loveliness in his views of LA that is at once inherently, vividly authentic, while at the same time hyper-real or dressed out in its beauty by the careful omission of things like smog, crowded highways, or the general sweep of endless trashy neighborhoods that dominate its true landscape. This is a conceptual LA, more so than in most of the films of the 40s and 50s. The opening is also memorable: an astonishingly kinetic dance sequence of jitterbugging couples all over the screen, like fish filmed underwater by a diver. There are also the predictable, by now somewhat trite, Lynch spook touches. Still, hardly a dull moment encumbers this movie. The other plus is Aussie Naomi Watts, a dazzling actress, full of power and range that are unexpected from her girl-next-door pasty blonde appearance. Grade: B+
THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE CHICKEN (Mark Lewis, Australia/US, 2001). Oddball 54 minute made-for-TV documentary, filmed in the U.S. Really it's the UNnatural history of chickens; everything about these birds bears the heavy stamp of human influence. Full of eccentric characters, great chicken stories and facts for the chicken fact challenged. Absorbing. Hilarious. Grade: B
NEAPOLITAN HEART (Paolo Santori, Italy, 2003). My entire home film library consists of three commercial VHS tapes, and all are musical. Two are copies of John Landis’s The Blues Brothers, both of which I bought way cheap at garage sales. The other I bought new: Paul Simon’s Concert in the Park, featuring Simon with a huge band – African, South American and U.S. musicians - performing in Central Park in the summer of 1991. And if they ever market a recording of Neapolitan Heart, I will rush right out and add it as the fourth item in my breathtaking collection. Don’t think of this film as a documentary but as a brilliant musical album featuring some of the great singers – past and present – of songs from Naples. Filled to the brim with heart and soul, it is a joyous tribute to the effusive, melodramatic southern Italian culture of romance, gaiety, sentiment, and, in hard times, grit. Songs by present day singers are intercut with interviews and clips from old Italian films, mostly from the silent era. In the opening scene, Rita Berti, a star film singer in the 1920s and beyond, greets an old pianist friend in footage shot recently. Then we segue to the opening credits, accompanied by blue-tinted clips from an old film starring Berti, who rides atop a float surrounded by a male chorus in a crazy parade through Naples. My only negative criticism is that, in several instances, the editors cut tremendous performances in mid-song to make way for talking heads. In my book that is the worst transgression that can occur in a musical film. The performers I liked best were Pietra Montecorvino, a whiskey voiced, tattooed, Frida Kahlo look alike; Alexander Marcenko, a Ukrainian transplanted to Naples who sings in a basso voice in restaurants and plays breathtaking guitar; Francesca Marina, who looks a bit like Lisa Minnelli, and who has timing you can’t believe; and Peppe Barra, an older, vigorous man who gives the final performance of the film. Barra appears in a red North African knit cap and white pants and shirt, plays a castanet-style hand percussion instrument, and is accompanied by a wild violinist and a drummer. He sings a ballad written in 1945 that speaks of the horrors of World War II in Naples, and especially the problem of Neapolitan women bearing babies as a result of rapes by German soldiers. It is a frenzied ballad, filled with Barra’s primal yells, and as he sings on, we see a series of brief intercuts, first of Mount Vesuvius erupting, then wartime scenes of destruction and chaos. It is an electrifying finale! (In Italian) Grade: B+
NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN (Sidney Lumet, US, 1996). Tightly wound, well paced drama of police corruption and twisted politics in NYC. Good story line. Fine acting in all principal roles: Andy Garcia (idealistic Assistant DA); Ian Holm (his father, an aging police detective); Ron Liebman (Garcia’s boss, the hardboiled DA) and Richard Dreyfuss (ace defense attorney). Dreyfuss shows more fire in the belly here than in recent memory. Grade: B+
ON THE ROPES (Nanette Burstein & Brett Morgen, US, 1999). Documentary about people connected with a well known developmental boxing gym in the Bedford-Stuyvesant slum of Brooklyn, a club that has produced several champions. Harry Keitt is a trainer in charge of the Bed-Stuy Boxing Center. A former sparring partner of Muhammed Ali's, Harry's work now is to try to help talented kids find success in life through boxing. The film traces the experiences of three of Harry's proteges, George Walton, Tyrene Manson and Noel Santiago, leading up to the 1996 and 1997 Golden Gloves tournaments. Absorbing, winsome, engaging real life drama. 1999 Sundance Special Jury Award winner and Oscar nominee. Grade: B+
101 REJKJAVEK (Baltasar Kormakur, Iceland, 2001). Hlynur is an immature 30 year old living on the dole at his Mom's. His main pursuits are booze, weed and women. His mom takes a lesbian lover (Victoria Abril) whom he impregnates while Mom's away. It's all too unsettling for Hlynur, whose choices are to destroy himself or get a life. Droll yet thoughtful comedy. (In Icelandic) Grade: B
OT: OUR TOWN (Scott Hamilton Kennedy, US, 2002). This little documentary will fill your soul with joy! For 20 years Dominguez High School, in the middle of the south central LA ghetto of Compton, had not had a drama program or produced a single play. This is basketball country. DHS fields one championship team after another. A year ago, Tyson Chandler, a DHS star, joined the NBA Chicago Bulls (Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin’s old team) and became a starter right out of high school. DHS teams are that good. But as a teacher in the film says to the students, if you’re not 6-7, or otherwise distinguished as an athlete, there’s nothing for you at Dominguez. Some folks set out to change that and this is their story. Two courageous and caring teachers, with no money, equipment, or even an auditorium, convince 24 students to join them in mounting a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the all time most often produced play in America. Kennedy, a boyfriend of one of the teachers, came along to film the long and often painful process of preparation and rehearsal, and the opening night performance.
First of all, this play - with no sets, costumes or music, and about white people in New England a long time ago - was not an easy sell to the hip Hispanic and black kids, nosiree. But gradually, with a lot of help from the teachers and some of the natural leaders among the students, and using frequent group discussions, people start to make connections between the timeless themes of the play – community, growing up, love, marriage, parenthood, family, death – and their own lives. Kids talk about desertion by a parent but also the loving people who substitute for a mom or dad in their lives. And they can surely relate to death: one boy could recall 15 deaths of friends from drugs, killings and suicides. The film is technically only fair. But the filmmaker maintains a remarkable rapport with the people he is filming. He weaves between rehearsal scenes and conversations with students, sometimes going into their homes, meeting their families. The tension in the last days leading up to opening night is palpable. Memorization of lines is still a distant goal for some with 2 weeks to go. Kids start skipping rehearsals. Some threaten to quit. There are moments when the whole project teeters toward cancellation. But in the end no one drops out, not one. And without giving away any details, I can say that the group creates some mighty impressive innovations to make Wilder’s hoary gem about human nature relevant to Compton and to the kids at Dominguez. It’s a Hit! And we are stoked almost as much as these kids and their families must have felt. We’re thrilled for them. Grade: B+
OUR LADY OF THE ASSASSINS (Barbet Schroeder, Argentina, 2001). Fine meditation on the violent ironies of contemporary life, not only in Medellin, Colombia, the setting of the story, where boundless violence permeates every facet of daily life, but all around us as well. Film gathers strength from a well crafted screenplay by Fernando Vallejo, based on his novel; brilliant performances by the two male leads; and the indelibly interesting scenes of Medellin. Vallejo (German Jaramillo) is a world weary intellectual still drawn to the great traditions of church, art and music, who nevertheless has grown cynical to the point of being suicidal. He is attracted to Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros): to his youthful body; his casual attitude toward violence; his serene ignorance of all Vallejo holds dear. Alexis in turn is haunted by the knowledge that he is a man marked for death. He too is world weary but is amused by Vallejo's scalding criticisms of society and his love of the classics that Alexis has never been exposed to before. Vallejo's courtly charm draws Alexis toward him. They are seemingly in love, a truly odd couple, each poetically offering the other something missing and necessary for survival. (In Spanish). Grade: A-
PEACE, PROPAGANDA, AND THE PROMISED LAND (Sut Jhally & Bathsheba Ratzkoff, US, 2004, 80 min.). If you think we in the U.S. get honest, balanced media reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you need to see this documentary on pro-Israel U. S. media distortion ASAP. The filmmakers take a highly organized, scholarly approach to their subject. They recount the four levels of “filters” that have distorted U.S. media reports in favor of Israel for decades (large corporate conglomerate interests – the people who own the media and their friends; political elites; Israeli PR efforts; and indigenous U.S. pro-Israel groups). A glaring example of the corporate filter is an edict several years ago from CNN headquarters that Jewish settlements would no longer be referred to by that term but by the alternative term, “neighborhoods” - to downplay the occupation and the aggressiveness of Israeli settlement policies. More open dialogue about human rights abuses pertetrated against Palestinians by Israel is seen in media in Tel Aviv and Haifa today than in the U.S. This film tells how and why this is so. Grade: A-.
THE PERSONALS (Keiko Ibi, US, 1998). NYU film grad student thesis and Oscar winner as best documentary of 98! Older people participating in a senior center theater group write their own plays. This one is about their actual experiences seeking dates through personals ads. The characters are candid, often amusing, and amused by one another, and the director, a pro, is patient and supportive. Toward the end the project is defunded and the director must go. How typical of America's fickle support for human services, even the best. Grade: A
THE PLEDGE (Sean Penn, US, 2001). First rate character portrayal by Jack Nicholson of Jerry, an aging, intelligent, compassionate small town detective. Jerry becomes somewhat unhinged by retirement and embarks on a quest to catch a killer, eventually crossing the line separating moral obligation from obsession. Wonderful supporting cast includes Sam Shepard and Aaron Eckhart, with rich though brief cameos by Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren and Harry Dean Stanton. Superb soundtrack: how about music from Mozambique by a Sierra Nevada stream? Grade: B+
THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR ("Der Krieger und die Kaiserin") (Tom Tykwer, Germany, 2001). German writer-director Tykwer's latest film is more polished and lacks the plot gimmickry of his 1999 cult hit, Run, Lola, Run. Sissi (Franka Potente, Tykwer's real life partner at the time and also the star of Lola) is a psychiatric nurse who befriends the wild-eyed Bodo (Benno Furmann), a muscular, angry, grieving bundle of misdirected energy. They are an intriguing couple who find more than their share of adventure. Like Lola, this film sweeps you up rapidly and propels you along. Tykwer's screenwriting and editing are flawless in this regard. He is also highly inventive in seeking visual effects. Lola was full of them - too full. In Princess, Tykwer reigned in his love of visual thrills and nonstop action, giving us less razzle-dazzle in favor of a more cohesive story and decidedly better character development. Still, his visual pursuit of a letter through the mail at the opening of the film is mesmerizing. His use of a doppelganger - a double - to visually represent a possible transformation in Bodo's character at one point is bold and surprisingly successful. (In German) Grade: B+
PRISONER OF THE MOUNTAINS (Sergei Bodrov, Russia, 1996) Stunning dramatization of the Russian-Chechnyan war, with a screenplay based on Tolstoy’s novella, “Prisoner of the Caucasus.” Village life as well as the varying passions of those inexorably caught up in the conflict are poignantly portrayed. Filmed in the Causasus during a temporary truce in the war. (In Russian) Grade A-
LA PROMESSE (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium, 1996) Igor, a 15 year old boy, helps his father, the lowlife Roger, smuggle illegal aliens from north Africa into the Belgian town of Liege. A man, one of the latest group of illegals, arrives to be reunited with his wife and infant . But the man dies in an accident. Roger forces Igor to help bury the body surreptitiously and Roger lies to the wife that her husband has left her. Igor is caught in the middle: he promised the dying man he would assist his wife and infant. But to do so puts Igor in a dangerous compromise with his violent father. Fast paced, unsettling film. The situation is similar, of course, to the “coyotes” who ruthlessly take money to bring Mexicans into the southwestern US, often instead abandoning them to death. Film won several domestic awards as best foreign film. (In French) Grade: B+
PROMISES (Justine Shapiro & B.Z. Goldberg, Israel, 2001). Touching, humorous, ultimately tragic documentary composed of interviews conducted in 1997-98, during a "lull" in middle east hostilities, with 7 kids who live in and around Jerusalem - 4 Israelis and 3 Palestinians, ages about 11 to 15. What impresses is the articulate, sophisticated, extremely well defended manner in which they disclose their deeply held partisan beliefs. The directors arrange a visit in which most of the kids participate. But they make little effort on their own to follow up: a couple phone calls, no more visits. When re-interviewed two years later, most think such exchanges are central to achieving peace, but they have scant hope that this will occur. (In Hebrew and Arabic) Grade: B+
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (Paul Thomas Anderson, US, 2002). This loopy, visually captivating film is easily the most eccentric romantic comedy in ages. Adam Sandler, whose movies I have avoided like the SARS virus, is cast as Barry Egan, a single thirtysomething oddball who distributes novelty toilet plungers from a San Fernando Valley warehouse and serves as a psychological punching bag for his seven nagging sisters. It’s not much of a life until he meets Lena (Emily Watson), who proves to be a bit of a kook in her own right. Who else could tolerate this geek except the woman that made her film debut opposite an impossible wretch of a man in Breaking the Waves? Egan is full of quirks. He buys thousands of packaged puddings to accrue bonus frequent flyer miles even though he has zero interest in travel (he did the math and discovered a company error – the miles are worth more than the price paid for the pudding, and he just cannot resist the bargain). He wears a royal blue polyester suit that Ross Dress for Less wouldn’t sell, and has aggressive fits of pique in which he can trash a public restroom or his sister’s floor to ceiling windows in a heartbeat. Barry falls madly in love with Lena but before that he copes with loneliness by dialing up some telephone sex, a bad move leading to complications in the form of a very nasty financial shakedown operation masterminded by a pompous mattress warehouse owner named Dean in Utah (Philip Seymour Hoffman, of all people). Energized by love, not to mention his own penchant for violence, Barry proves to be more than a match for Dean’s henchmen. Sandler’s absolutely unpredictable utterances and physical comedy are a wonder to behold. The camera work and mise-en-scene are always imaginative, with daring, vividly colored abstract pastiches demarcating major scene changes, and the musical soundtrack varies spectacularly from industrial noise compositions to 30s romantic riffs. Anderson, whose work is nearly always highly watchable (Magnolia, Boogey Nights) does it again here, in what I think is clearly his most audacious film so far. Grade: B+
RAISING VICTOR VARGAS (Peter Sollett, US, 2003). Here's a quality teenflick, one that should also be amusing to many adults, set in a Latino neighborhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The actors are all first timers. Victor (Victor Rasuk) is a 16 year old charismatic stud who is very full of himself. He takes a strong liking to Judy (Judy Marte), a stunning, doe-eyed and very self-possessed girl. Winning her is the gold standard by which the guys measure their attractiveness to the opposite sex. But Judy gets hit on so often that she's developed a polished ice-queen persona. Victor ultimately wins her heart, but only by growing up in a hurry. An ensemble of other youngsters round out a generally worthy cast. Victor's family members are especially fine: his sister Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez), kid brother Nino (Rasuk's brother Silvestre), and his grandmother, Mami (74 year old Altagracia Guzman from the Dominican Republic, who also had never acted before). Mami radiates reflexive disapproval of all the youngsters. The film builds slowly after a bumpy start, reaches a turning point when Mami tries to palm Victor off on a social service agency because she cannot manage his behavior to her satisfaction, and finishes well. The photography is excellent, with many fine closeups. The music is especially good. My favorites on the soundtrack were a salsa number while watching chickens move in perfect time to the music, and J. S. Bach's Concerto for Piano in F minor during a scene in church, reprised later by Nino playing the piano at home. Ms. Marte's role is especially well acted, but so is Victor Rasuk's. Almost unbelievably, there is no violence here. This is the second film by Sollett - and the second to feature Rasuk and Marte - following his 2000 film Five Feet High and Rising, which I have not seen. Grade: B+
READ MY LIPS (Sur Mes Lévres) (Jacques Audiard, France, 2002). Super taut suspense thriller about Carla, a lonely, deaf, smart, ostensibly demure woman (Emmanuelle Devos), who hires Paul, a taciturn, unskilled ex-con (Vincent Cassel), as her office assistant. What might Carla's motives be for taking on such a project? Well, for one thing, she's bitter that all the men at work get the commissions and disrespect her. Might be good to have a tough guy under her thumb. For another thing, she also may long for some excitement - a dull, ordinary, not at all appealing woman at work, we see her ritually standing nude before a mirror in her apartment dressed only in red stiletto heels. This rough fellow may turn her on. Perhaps she simply identifies with him as a fellow underdog, someone with another sort of handicap who needs a break. In any event, after a thug comes around to shake Paul down for big bucks he owes, Paul gradually involves Carla in an increasingly dangerous web of circumstances. She is an expert lip reader and Paul wants to use this talent in his quest of getting the tough guys off his back. Carla makes a deal with him: he continues to help her at the office, she helps him get out of trouble. He agrees and, more importantly, he gains respect as Carla begins to reveal some toughness of her own. Soon she is dressing more sexily. Finally, she shows such excitement and satisfaction from their joint ventures that Paul cannot help but be impressed. Each of these people gradually finds what they are seeking in the other. The tension stays high from start to finish. Almost every scene is arranged in cramped quarters with partially blocked views, putting the viewer in the center of an unceasingly claustrophobic world. This is a humdinger suspense flick. (In French) Grade: A-
THE RED DWARF (Yvan Le Moine, Belgium/France, 1999). Jean-Yves Thual, an actor who happens to be a dwarf, gives a masterful performance in a fantastic film that could be described as a sort of comic strip-like fantasy life of a dwarf. Or is it to be taken as real? The film evokes Fellini (it even includes a cameo performance by Anita Ekberg, as a decidedly old yet still debauching Amazon) and also Bergman, featuring riveting gothic black & white photography as well as the twin themes of the circus and that most intriguing of human forms, the freak. Lucien L'Hotte (Thual) is a dwarf lawyer, retained on a lowly level as a law clerk in a large firm, kept on there only to fulfill pledge made by the heads of the firm to Lucien's now deceased father.
Lucien is asked - rather the law firm is asked and the task is assigned to Lucien - to write up some fake threatening letters for a client, "Bob," to use to stir up his spouse, an aging countess (Ekberg), to gain his freedom, presumably. Perhaps at this point the story crosses over into fantasy, perhaps not. Lucien's erotic lines arouse the Countess and some energetic and heroic, even superhuman, adventures follow. This amorous romp, if that is what it is, between Lucien and Countess threatens to interrupt another sort of budding relationship, between Lucien and Isis, the 12 year old granddaughter of the owner of a small traveling circus. Isis regards Lucien innocently as a soul mate and her chief source of encouragement to become a trapeze artist like her deceased mother. And so it goes...this is high and dreamy melodrama.
The destructive scene with Lucien's toy arrangement, following his discovery the Countess has reconciled with Bob, is very powerful. Wonderful soundtrack with music ranging from middle European folk tunes, a la accordion, to Sebelius's "Valse Triste" (Op. 44), one of my favorites. Estimation of this film depends on whether you buy into its fantastic conceit: that a "freak" can suddenly break free into the fullness of life, free of all the deeply ingrained inhibitions and traumatic psychological scar tissue accumulated during a lifetime as a deformed outcast outcast in middle class society. The fact that Lucien can do anything anyone else can do, and in fact is an amazingly robust fellow, makes the explosion of improbable turns in his life and conduct slightly believable. (Although it also makes you wonder why he didn't erupt sooner. Well, suspension of disbelief is definitely called for here.) Lucien is certainly is full of joie de vivre, and it magnifies everything. I bought the premise hook, line and sinker. Thual is a patient, confident actor with a handsome romantic lead's face (he reminds me of Christopher Reeve), and this for me is a near great film, a stirring revolt, a delicious revenge, but most of all a riotous celebration of life by a freak, a freak who is more passionate, if not better, than most of us. A near masterpiece. (In French) Grade: A
RETURN WITH HONOR (Freida Lee Mock & Terry Sanders, US, 1999). The story of American military POWs, almost all fighter pilots, incarcerated in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Twenty are interviewed at length, and segments of these interviews are artfully woven together with new and old film footage, including many remarkable clips from North Vietnamese film archives and recent filming of the Hanoi prison where many were held and tortured. A remarkable testament to the suffering, courage, resourcefulness and limitations of some of the fittest and brightest of our warriors. Grade: A
RIVERS AND TIDES (Thomas Riedelsheimer, Germany, 2003). Scotsman Andy Goldsworthy is a remarkable nature artist, a sculptor who employs materials found in the outdoors, and he is also more than a bit of a mystic. Goldsworthy and his creations are the subjects of this splendid film. He makes wonderful things, some rather permanent, others wispy and evanescent. His more permanent works include huge cones made of small stones that stand as tall as Andy’s reach. And a marvelous, long, low serpentine rock wall at the Storm King Art Center in New York (a 500 acre park along the Hudson that also features 13 large outdoor pieces by David Smith, among the work of other famous sculptors). His ephemeral works are even more imaginative, and include red pigmented crushed stone tossed into a brook for colorific effect, long tapeworm- like strands of green leaves held together by toothpicks, encouraged to snake their way down streams, Calderesque, weblike works made of bracken, and dozens of other exciting forms. Goldsworthy talks a lot about what he does but is himself aware that his words cannot convey the depth of his feelings when at work, the sense of communion he experiences with the natural objects and settings in which he works. Riedelsheimer did the cinematography here and it is beautiful. See this lovely film about the work of an inspired naturist. Grade: B+
SCHIZOPOLIS (Steven Soderberg, US, 1996). A bizzare array of digs at modern life, e.g., suburbia, the corporate ratrace, Scientology, sexual obsession, and the degradation of language. Soderberg proves to be a wonderful deadpan comedian as the protagonist in this post-modern, zany work. It’s his most experimental film to date. Grade: B
SHANGHAI NOON (Tom Dey, Hong Kong/US, 2000). Send up of the Hong Kong martial arts genre. Lucy Liu is a Chinese princess kidnapped and taken to Nevada in 1881. Jackie Chan is sent to rescue her but is more than a bit lost in the wild west. No problem, thanks to cowpoke Owen Wilson, whose absolutely sincere delivery of every New Age cliche in the book makes this film a riot. (In English, no dubbing) Grade: A-
SHOWER (Zhang Yang, China, 2000). The passing of cultural traditions and the passing of an old man, and the effects of both upon those who live on, are celebrated in this warmhearted, intimate, unsentimental film set in a northern Chinese town (In Mandarin). Grade: A
SON OF THE BRIDE (Juan Jose Campanella, Argentina, 2001). Delightful romantic comedy in which Rafael, a 42 year divorced restaurant owner (Ricardo Darin, the goateed petty crook in Nine Queens), wants change, feeling that his life has become stagnant, which it certainly has. Like most people, he is burdened by the hassles of the daily grind and doesn’t take time to smell the roses. Two people and a personal health event cause him to reconsider how he lives. His father (a sunny, loving Hector Alterio) wants Rafa to arrange for the church wedding that he and Rafa’s mother (Norma Aleandro) never had. One small problem: mom has pretty advanced Alzheimer’s and the church considers her incompetent to marry (never mind that she and dad have already been married for 44 years). Then Juan Carlos (Eduardo Blanco), Rafa’s closest childhood friend appears after 20 years apart. Blanco is a lovable screwball reminiscent of Roberto Benigni, who threatens to steal the heart of Rafa’s young lover. In the midst of the dizzying romanticism surrounding Rafa, he suffers an illness that causes him to reprioritize. All’s well that ends well for everyone concerned. Well paced, buoyant fare. 2001 Oscar nominee for best foreign film. (In Spanish) Grade: B
SPELLBOUND (Jeff Blitz, US, 2002). This superlative documentary follows 8 kids who were among the 249 regional winners headed for the 72nd annual National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC, in 1999. According to Sean Welch, the producer, who attended the screening, the production team studied information about scores of kids to determine which ones to film over the 6 month period leading up to the finals. They ended up filming 13, and finally reduced that down to 8 for the final product. The film sufficiently exposes us to the tension and suspense of the contest itself, but the more important focus here is on the people involved. We meet each of the contestants - all middle school age (8th grade is the upper limit for eligibility) - and their families, and learn about their lives as well as the varied approaches the families take in preparing for the contest. The film's director and editor have blended footage in a manner that is always fresh and inventive. What's more, they succeed in capturing small touches and gestures of humanity and humor at every turn. A young man - a contestant's older brother - respectfully describes his parents' vision and devotion, when they immigrated from Mexico 20 years ago to make a better life for their children. An ever-present family dog licks a mother's bare ankle as she is being interviewed. The "pronouncer" at the Nationals smiles with delight when a particular contestant gets a word right. Technically, the film is outstanding. A photomontage of 8 juxtaposed narrow vertical photos, exposing just enough of each kid's face to make them recognizable, is displayed at the beginning, and similar montages are used throughout as transitional cuts between film segments: a visully arresting and pleasing effect. Cuts are well chosen and nearly seamlessly connected. It has been a privilege to witness two documentaries in this Festival that, more than any others I can recall, lovingly depict kids and the adults who encourage and help them to learn (the other being Philibert's To Be and To Have). Do see both of these films if you can! Grade: A
SPRING FORWARD (Tom Gilroy, US, 2001). Murph (Ned Beatty) works for the parks department of a small New England town. He’ll retire in a year. Young Paul (Live Schreiber) has just been paroled from prison after serving 18 months for armed robbery and is trying to get a fresh start at his first post-release job, working as Murph’s partner. The film follows this unlikely pair through the seasons of the next year, starting in the spring. The action consists of Murph and Paul’s never ending conversations and growing friendship. They talk mainly about the trivia of daily life. But sometimes of deeper things. This is a simple masterpiece. These guys talk the way real people talk. There are long pauses when there is no talk. Each over time gives the other an enormous gift: Paul gets the fresh start he so desperately requires, and Murph restores his self respect as a man capable of helping another man to succeed in life. Bravura performances by both actors. This is My Dinner with Andre for Everyman. Grade: A
STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN (Paul Justman, US, 2002). Motown studios turned out more hit singles than any four groups of pop musicians combined that you can think of. But it was the stars: people like Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and all, who got the credit and Motown impresario Berry Gordy Jr. who got most of the money. Left out of the equation were the studio musicians, mainly Detroit jazz players, who backed these singers and created the Motown R&B sound, a more-or-less steady group, with replacements needed as some players died, who called themselves the Funk Brothers. This film seeks to recognize their splendid contributions and succeeds magnificently. The filmmakers skillfully blend interviews, old live footage, dramatic reenactments of events involving the musicians as young men, and long, satisfying cuts from a recent concert featuring the survivors, fronted by contemporary R&B and soul singers. One deficiency, perhaps, is the fact that Gordy's manipulation and avarice - he apparently chiseled people as badly as any white recording czar - are glossed over (this story is told in a new book, "Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power" by Gerald Posner). On the other hand, exposing Gordy in the film would strike a sour note among the positive riffs that honor these incredibly able musicians. This is a first rate musicdoc. Could this launch a Motown version of the Buena Vista Social Club? Grade: B
STARTUP.COM (Chris Hegedus & Jehana Noujeim, US, 2001). Docu on the fast life and early death of a dot com company, in the verite Pennebaker/Hegedus style. Two former high school buddies launch an outfit that promises to help people cut through red tape in accessing local government services. Great idea. They failed. The human fallout here gets attention as well as the business side. Prescient film debuted in festivals just as the “dot com” implosion was nearing mach 1 speed. Grade: B+
STONE READER (Mark Moskowitz, US, 2003). Absorbing documentary about the complementary passions of writing and reading novels. Moskowitz loves a novel, “The Stones of Summer,” by Dow Mossman. As a teenager, Moskowitz read a review of the book by John Seelye in the New York Times in 1972, bought the paperback and tried without success to get through it. Thirty years later he rediscovered the book, this time reading it through with tremendous pleasure. In fact, his re-reading has reduced his copy to a coverless, spineless stack of loose pages held together by a rubber band. (He makes up for this by buying up every copy of the long out of print book – hardback and paper – that he can find.) He dashes to the Internet and elsewhere in search of subsequent writings by Mossman, finding no trace of either works or Mossman himself. Moskowitz then decides to track Mossman down and film the process of finding him. It becomes a consuming, obsessive journey. But the result is also a loving ode to novel making and reading. We are reminded of the sacrifices, difficult odds and blind luck required to have good first books published. We learn about other one-book novelists and of the obsessional torment that can avert a writer from trying again. Writer Frank Conroy nicely points out that reading novels is an active process in which the reader’s imagination engages with the words of the author: they become unique co-creators of the novel for that reader. We witness intriquing dialogues between Moskowitz and critics like Seelye and Leslie Fiedler, William Cotter Murray, who was Mossman’s professor at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and fellow novelists like Conroy from the period.
As the manhunt closes in on the reticent Mr. Mossman, evidence mounts to show that his novel was the product of incredible obsession, with a huge number of rewrites over a half dozen years. He would write at times for 20 hours a day. So we have a film about an obsessed reader in search of an obsessed writer. Markowitz is on camera a lot, a la Michael Moore. And, like Moore, he is far from being a reserved, academic sort: Moskowitz is more of an everyman. He makes his living creating political ads. He haphazardly collects novels by the hundreds; many are dog eared paperbacks. He’s a fast moving, fast talking, impulsive fellow – a bull in a china shop. He tears open padded mailing envelopes, complaining all the while about the fibrous padding that spews forth onto his floor, shuffles through archival drafts of Mossman’s work in the University of Iowa library with haste and clumsiness, lopes through Mossman’s house nosing into boxes in search of Mossman’s original publishing contract. But when it comes to interviewing others, his enthusiasm for the novel and the search for its author infects the people he talks with, gets their juices flowing. And at these wonderful moments, Moskowitz, unlike Michael Moore, has the grace and self restraint to stand aside and let his interviewees speak. For anyone who knows the joy of stepping into other worlds that only novels embody, you will find here a wild and wonderful celebration of what you hold dear. (One terrific byproduct of this effort is the republication of “The Stones of Summer” by Barnes & Noble, scheduled for this coming October.) Grade: B+
THE TASTE OF OTHERS (Agnes Jaoui, France, 2000). Delightful film about good and bad taste, boorishness and intimacy. This is another funny, scathing work from the hottest duo in French theater and cinema these days, Jaoui (who also plays Manie) and her spouse Jean-Pierre Bacri (he's Castella, the businessman). They also co-wrote the screenplay. The two bodyguards are wonderful. (In French) Grade: B+
THE THIEF (Pavel Chukhrai, Russia, 1997). Post WW II drama set in Russia in 1952. A young boy (Misha Philipchuk) and his widowed mother (Ekaterina Rednikova) are traveling on a train when they meet a soldier (Vladimir Mashkov) who convinces the woman to come live with him. He not only bears a mean streak but proves to be an engaging imposter. A well crafted, well acted tale. (In Russian) Grade: A
THIEVES (Andre Techine, France, 1996). Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil star in a sophisticated crime film that derives its suspense not from the crime elements but from the incredibly complex relationships among the principal characters. (In French) Grade: A
TIETA DO AGRESTE (Tieta of the Agreste, or of the Forest or of the Wilderness) (Carlos Diegues, Brazil, 1996). This comedy is a little treasure, a sex farce based on a novel by Jorge Amado. A 17 year old girl (Tieta) is banished from her village after her sister (Perpetua) tells their father of Tieta's sexual romps (we see all of this in flashbacks). 26 years later, Tieta (a lusty, voluptuous, very amusing Sonia Braga) returns in triumph, seemingly a wealthy heiress whose industrialist husband has just died in Sao Paulo. In fact she owns a successful brothel and has come back to gloat, cause trouble, and, after reconciling with her father and sister, to help them in various ways. Lovely, colorful scenes of the little town, land and people. Marilia Pera as the ever greedy Perpetua and Chico Anysio as Ze Esteves, their father, are also marvelously funny. (In Portuguese) Grade: B+
A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran, 2000). In Iran, in the mountains close to the Iraqi border, a Kurdish family of five children are orphaned when their father is killed by a landmine (their mother had died in childbirth years before). The older sister stays home with the baby. Ayoub, the older brother, and his middle sister Amaneh, struggle to earn money in the nearest town to help the family survive and save money for surgery needed for another brother, Madi, who suffers from spina bifida and will die eventually whether or not he has the procedure. It is also winter and heavy snows fill the passes. It is a tough and dangerous life. Ayoub’s uncle gets him a better job ferrying goods across the border, on his back or by mule. It’s so tough a climb that the mules are given alcohol to suspend their judgment. At the summit – if one gets there – armed guards often wait in ambush. It’s never clears who they are: Saddams’s men or renegades. The older sister’s marriage is arranged, to a man in an Iraqi Kurdish village on condition that the groom’s family will also take Madi in. The deal falls through when the groom’s mother gets a look at Madi. At the end Ayoub and Madi are sneaking across the border to Iraq with a mule to sell for Madi’s operation. It’s a gritty, suspenseful film. The young actors are quite valiant. (In Kurdish and Farsi) Grade: B+
TO BE AND TO HAVE (Nicolas Philibert, France, 2003). I saw Philibert’s lovely documentary, Every Little Thing, at the NWFC a few years ago, a film about the making of an outdoor play one summer by patients residing at an upscale, rurally situated French psychiatric hospital. This one is even better. Philibert wanted to make a documentary about rural primary education. After visiting more than 100 schools, he chose L’ecole de Chamailloux, in Saint-Etienne sur Usson. It is a one room school in hilly dairy country, run by one teacher, Georges Lopez, for 13 students, ranging from pre-school to age 10. M. Lopez lives alone upstairs at the school. This film is the result of 60 hours of shooting over a 6 month period. We spend nearly two hours with M. Lopez and his students, occasionally venturing out to visit students and their families at home. Lopez is a natural teacher. He wanted to be a teacher from the time he attended grade school, and he even regularly rehearsed his chosen career during childhood by acting the role of teacher, not only with younger kids but even with his agemates. Now less than 2 years from retirement, he has spent the last 20 years of his 35 year career at this school. He is kind, but also fair and firm when needed; he never raises his voice nor says anything in anger. He appears to be remarkably flexible in dealing with children of differing ages and abilities. And, as my mother would say, he has the patience of Job. Besides the 3 R’s, he teaches everything from the making of crepes to the crucial moral imperative that one must keep one’s promises. He mediates a conflict between two feuding fifth grade boys, and later comforts one of them whose father has advanced cancer, with the sensitivity and skill of a first rate child therapist. He counsels parents on their relationships to their children. Part social worker, recreation director, and life skills coach, he is an elegant, not to say almost saintly, human being. Not that the film is just about him. Far from it. We get acquainted with a number of his charges. Everything from their head colds to their concerns about who is their friend. Jo Ann’s and my favorite was 6 year old JoJo, a young fellow blessed with limited attentiveness, a penchant for making a mess, and boundless innocent charm. Winner of Best European Documentary Award, 2002. (In French) Grade: A
24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE (Michael Winterbottom, UK, 2002). Docudrama that recreates the cutting edge of the pop music scene in Manchester, UK, from the rise of punk rock in the early 1970s through the early “rave” movement in the mid-1980s. The film is especially well crafted, mixing old footage of star performances with those of musicians and actors assembled to make the film. The organizing force in this film is Tony Wilson, a real character on the Manchester scene in those years, a promoter, club owner and local TV personality whose telecasts provided the only venue for showcasing early punk rockers like the Sex Pistols, who were banned from the airwaves elsewhere in Britain. Wilson is played brilliantly by Steve Coogan, a celebrity comedian and media darling in Britain today. He is wonderful: an urbane fellow who is as unashamed of his Cambridge education as he is of being discovered by his wife in the back of a van with a hooker going down on him. He is naturally funny, and we get into his style almost immediately when we follow him through his first hang gliding experience. It’s riotous. There’s plenty of music and the usual cast of characters one associates with pop music culture, along with their drugs, loves and suicides. We are let in on the irony that the eventual failure of the wildly successful rave club Wilson ran was caused because no one bought drinks: they all came to the club already stoned on Ecstasy. The drug lords were making the money and, unsurprisingly, didn’t wish to share it with Wilson. Coogan is every bit a latter day Monty Python sort, and one never tires of him or his blithe efforts to keep the music alive. Perhaps the best part, if it's true, is Wilson’s dedication to the principle that the musicians deserve all the profits for their work, not the promoters or the recording moguls. Grade: B+
TWENTYFOUR/SEVEN (24-7) (Shane Meadows, UK, 1997). Bob Hoskins is Alan Darcy, a middle aged former boxer who has a vision to help the aimless young men in his town: to redeem their lives through boxing. He revives the moribund boxing club that years before gave him a new direction in life. All goes well for awhile, but a tragic occurrence leads Darcy to exile himself and breaks up the boxing club. Shot in black and white, the photography, the timing of takes and camera angles in particular, are superb, the sound track is outstanding, the young men in the club are interesting, the other supporting players good, and Hoskins is both fierce and enormously kind and caring - a great role for him. The only drawback is the unavoidable problem of all films shot in the north of England: they don't speak English there. Yet so much is well conveyed visually in this film that the language barrier is not all that bad. End credits not only show pictures of the players with names but interactions among them in small groups, a wonderful touch. All in all a surprisingly complete, well put together and moving film. Grade: A
TWILIGHT LOS ANGELES (Marc Levin, US, 2001). Film adaptation of Anna Devere Smith’s imaginative virtuoso creation: the story of the riots in south central LA in 1992 that followed the first trial of police in the Rodney King beating, which was closely linked in time to the killing of a young black woman by a Korean woman convenience store clerk. Smith conducted over 300 interviews of principals in the events connected with the riots and others. She uses the exact words of these individuals from her interview transcripts as the basis for a series of impersonations of these people that makes up her performance here. It is an ingenious, arresting, masterful effort - a unique blend of journalism and theater. Smith is a mighty force. The director skillfully intercuts footage of the riots and some of the actual principals with footage shot of Smith’s performance. Grade: A
UN HEROS TRES DISCRET (A Self-Made Hero) (Jacques Audiard, France, 1996) Mathieu Kassovitz is impeccable as a young man who pretends to be a WW II French Resistance hero, when in fact he spent the war in hiding at his family’s home. The film bitingly and humorously snipes at the not uncommon habit of many French people who bent compliantly to the dictates of the Vichy (Nazi puppet French) government and then, ashamed of themselves after the war and not a little afraid of reprisals, boasted of their secret (fictitious) participation in Resistance activities. (In French) Grade: B+
UNDER THE SAND (Francois Ozon, France, 2001). A sensational performance by Charlotte Rampling fuels this story of pathological bereavement. As the film opens, a middle aged, well off couple are motoring toward a seaside vacation at their beach house. Their relaxed, effortless geniality and comfort in being together is obvious. The following day they go to the beach. While Marie (Rampling) doses, Jean, her husband, goes for a swim and does not return. Marie awakens, discovers Jean’s absence, and frantically seeks assistance to search for him. His body is found weeks later in the nets of an offshore fisherman. Marie returns to the city, resumes her career as a university teacher of English literature, and reengages easily with her friends. A man she is introduced to at a dinner party pursues her. She demurs, then consents to dinner and later the beginnings of an affair. But through it all she continues to refer to her husband in the present tense, as if he is on the scene, as if nothing has happened. What’s more, she sees Jean when she is at home. He goes to bed with her. He asks her about Vincent, the suitor who has been calling. When friends confront her gently about facing up to Jean’s death, she is defensive, evasive. Finally, when police call to indicate the body has been discovered, she puts off coming in to identify the remains and property. But she does visit Jean’s mother in a rest home and tells her she fears Jean may have suicided. The mother is spiteful, hostile, says her son would do no such thing, but she shows her own brand of denial, suggesting that he probably faked his drowning and went away because he was bored with Marie. Marie retorts that the mother should be in an asylum, not a rest home, and the mother responds that Marie will be in an asylum before she will. Marie finally goes to the police in the seaside town, views the remains, identifies the swim trunks but when shown a wrist watch that exactly matches the description of Jean’s, she denies it is his with an hysterical laugh. She then returns to their beach house and to the exact point where Jean drowned. She sits in the sand and, for the first time since his disappearance, she cries deeply and long. Then she glimpses a figure of a man far down the beach. In the last scene she runs, then walks toward the man, but does not reach him before the scene fades. What is wrong here? Normal grief is entirely blocked by Marie’s denial of her husband’s death, and by the vivid realization of his continued presence, in the form of detailed hallucinations of his presence in the home (though never elsewhere). These forms of denial and dissociative hallucinatory experience of the presence of the lost loved one do occur, and not all that uncommonly. Obviously this situation is a desperate, unstable and unrealistic coping device that blocks a constructive adjustment to life after loss and the process of normal bereavement that can lead to a freeing of emotions for reinvestment in other relationships. A remarkable portrayal. The photography and music are also magnificent. (In French and English) Grade: A-
THE UNDERGROUND ORCHESTRA (Heddy Honigmann, Netherlands, 1997) The art and business of busking is presented in a delightful, absorbing study of Parisian street musicians (actually most play in the tunnels or cars of the Metro). We meet their families and friends, and learn of their long journeys to this point (nearly all are political exiles) and hopes for the future. And quite a bit of the music is outstanding. (In French, other languages) Grade: B+
THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES (Eve Ensler & Joe Mantello, US, 2002). Film produced for HBO of the fabulously successful stage production written and performed by Ensler. She interviewed 200 women about their thoughts concerning their vaginas, and built her script around rthis material. By turns hilarious, poignant, bold and tragic, this performance is absolutely riveting. Ensler is a prodigious talent: as interviewer, writer, actress, comedienne and social commentator. Grand entertainment. Grade: A-
THE VERTICAL RAY OF THE SUN (Tran Anh Hung, Vietnam/France, 2001). Hung, who made the brilliant film Cyclo, about the hustle required to survive in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), has made another film here that is only a shade less stunning. An ode to Hanoi, the story concerns three sisters, the relationships among themselves, with their extended families, and with the men in their lives. Vividly colorful and dramatically exciting, the story turns not on action, as in Cyclo, but on the emotional tension of intimate relationships challenged by love's vicissitudes. It is a spellbinding movie, full of excellently played characters. (In Vietnamese) Grade: A-
WAITING FOR GUFFMAN (Christopher Guest, US, 1997). Quirky comedy about some midwestern small town eccentrics putting on a pageant to celebrate the town’s history. The director (Guest) raises everyone’s aspirations by telling the cast that a famous New York producer friend is coming to see the show. With funny turns by Bob Balaban, Eugene Levy and Parker Posey. Grade: B+
WHEN THE RAIN LIFTS (aka AFTER THE RAIN) (Takashi Koizumi, Japan, 2001). Lovely story of Ihei, a good natured, generous, peaceable Samurai drifter and his wife. Holed up in an inn by bad weather, Ihei comes to the attention of a wise but volatile local fief ruler in need of a court fencing master. Will Ihei get this job he so desperately needs? Tune in to Akira Kurosawa’s last screenplay to find out. At the time I saw this fine film, in video at our film festival in February, 2001, a north American distributor had not yet been found for it. As of September, 2002 there are no reviews of it on mrqe.com. Too bad. Keeping watching for it, possibly at arty video rental shops. (In Japanese) Grade A-
WILD MAN BLUES (Barbara Kopple, US, 1998). Docu in which Kopple follows the Manhattan-based Dixieland jazz band in which Woody Allen plays clarinet as the band band tours Europe. Well revealed are Allen’s legendary neuroticism but also his graciousness in meeting fans onthe road. We get acquainted with Woody's sister, who was abroad on the tour as well, and, near the end, meet his parents, when the tour ends and everyone returns to New York. We also get to see just how much then-fiancee Soon-Yi Previn must mother Woody to get him through. Grade: B
WINGED MIGRATION (Jacques Perrin, France, 2001). Here’s a must see for any birder you know and for everyone else too. This film is an extraordinary photographic record of some of the world’s more spectacular bird migrations, up close and personal. Based on four years and untold miles of shooting birds of many species, the material is edited to cover a full year’s migration cycle. It’s a hard film to talk about, because it is so decidedly visual. The camera frequently seems to be traveling high in the sky in the “V” like a goose right next to other geese or whatever, or to be squatting on an Antarctic rock jammed next to all the other King penguins. Many of the closeup views are nothing short of astonishing. One really isn’t given much information about the birds…a rather laconic French narrator very occasionally speaks up in thick English, but he doesn’t have much to say. The music leans heavily toward New Age, but it often nicely fits the movements of the birds. The film was released in Europe in 2001 but is just screening in the U.S. this year. Produced by the same folks (Galatee Films and Perrin) that brought us the 1996 blockbuster about insects, Microcosmos. Grade: B+
THE WINSLOW BOY (David Mamet, US/UK, 1999). Nigel Hawthorne heads a fine cast in Mamet's remake of the Terrence Rattigan play about middle class English manners in the period before WW I. Based on a true story of a school's false charges of forgery and theft against a 13 year old boy. The boy's family sacrifices nearly everything to clear his name in a spellbinding drama of barely contained passions. Rebecca Pidgeon and Jeremy Northam give excellent performances. Grade: