Special Features


Temporary installations on this page may include highlighted individual film reviews, articles on particular themes written by me or others, "bests" lists (annual postings, usually in late January), and notes on film festivals, especially the annual Portland International Film Festival (PIFF) that occurs in February.  Read on...

There are 2 current special features: Portland International Film Festival - 2010; and Best Films Seen in 2009 **

** NOTE: At the moment, to see "Best Films Seen in 2009" you will need to scroll down, past the PIFF 33 reviews.

 

Special Feature # 1...

PORTLAND INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (PIFF 33)

February 11-28, 2010
All Reviews Copyright © 2010 Roland Atkinson

Latest postings: March 11 , 2010
Reviews have now been posted for all 46 films that I saw

Below the titles list ("THE FILMS"), "THE REVIEWS" are posted by title in alphabetical order.
SCROLL DOWN THROUGH FILMS & REVIEWS TO ONES YOU WANT

THE FILMS
Grades of A- and above
are shown in red
Films graded B- or higher are recommended
"NG"
after a film title means "not graded"
(reasons for NG are explained in the texts)

ALL REVIEWS HAVE NOW BEEN COMPLETED AND ARE POSTED BELOW.

About Elly B+
Ajami NG
The Art of the Steal B+
Bad Day to Go Fishing B
City of Life and Death A
Dawson Isla 10 B
Fish Tank B
For the Love of Movies B (general); A - (critics); B+ (overall)
Forever Enthralled NG
Garbage Dreams A -
The Girl on the Train C -
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo A -
Hipsters B+
Home C+
I Am Love D Consumer Alert!
The Inheritors A
Learning From Light: The Vision of I. M. Pei B+
Looking for Eric B
Lourdes B
Mid-August Lunch A -

Nobody to Watch Over Me B+
Nora's Will B+
Nothing Personal A






October Country B
Passenger Side
B -
Police, Adjective B

A Prophet
NG

The Protector B
Reporter A -
The Reverse B
Shameless NG
The Shock Doctrine B+
The Sicilian Girl B
Small Crime B
Sons of Cuba B+

Sweetgrass A
Terribly Happy B+
A Town Called Panic B
Vincere C
Ward No. 6 B+
The Warlords NG
The Wedding Song A -

Welcome B+
Wild Grass B+
The Wind Journeys A
Woman Without Piano B








ROLAND'S TOP 5 PIFF 33 FILMS (alpha order): City of Life and Death (docudrama, China / Hong Kong); The Inheritors (documentary, Mexico); Nothing Personal (narrative drama, Ireland / Netherlands); Sweetgrass (documentary, U.S.); and The Wind Journeys (narrative drama, Colombia / Netherlands / Argentina / Germany).

NEXT 5 (also in alpha order): Garbage Dreams (documentary, Egypt / U.S.); The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (narrative drama, Sweden / Denmark / Germany); Mid-August Lunch (narrative drama, Italy); Reporter (documentary, U.S.); and A Wedding Song (narrative drama, Tunisia / France).

MOVIES I MISSED that a number of film friends liked: Chameleon (Hungary); Charlie Haden: Ramblin' Boy (Switzerland); John Rabe (Germany); Letters to Father Jacob (Finland); Mother (South Korea); Music on Hold (Argentina); Reykjavik-Rotterdam (Iceland); The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls (New Zealand)

THE REVIEWS

"KEEP ON SCROLLIN' "

NOTE: I think of these texts and grades as works in progress. For a given film, I might change the text and/or grade - more than once in some cases - over several days after viewing it. This could be the result of more editing, further thoughts about the film, or a change in my views based on seeing a film a second time. Here are two important terms I use in some reviews:

SPOILER ALERT! - The review contains information that gives away parts of the plot; this could diminish or spoil your viewing experience.

CONSUMER ALERT! - A film with a poor script, poor acting, no message, and/or serious technical problems (Grades D and F).


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ABOUT ELLY (Darbareye Elly) (Asghar Farhadi, Iran, 2009, 119 m). SPOILER ALERT! Although the movement of this story is toward the tragic and pathetic, my feelings about the movie were very positive.  What a relief to see an Iranian film not shot in Tehran, with its grungy mountains always viewed through heavy smog. How great to see instead a lush mountain resort area, rivers, and an ocean (probably one of the several seas that surround Iran). How good to witness a group of old college chums of both genders playing and kidding around together in a natural manner, unfettered by doctrinaire, rigidified gender roles (although even at the beach or on a camping trip, the women must stick to their scarves and chadors). After watching such scenes for awhile, a person could be lulled into thinking that Iran is not a poisonous place to live.

Sepideh (drop dead gorgeous Golshifteh Farahani) seems to be the social arranger for this tightly knit group of couples and a few young kids. She’s planned a holiday trip to the mountains, but they all end up instead at a house on the beach. Another close friend is visiting from Germany, where his divorce from a German woman has just become final. Sepideh wants to play cupid. Her acquaintance Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti, also eye candy) has confided that she wants to end her long engagement to her fiancé, so Sepideh assumes she’s fair game and invites her along for the holiday.  When Elly refuses over and over again, Sepideh ramps up the pressure for her to come. Elly finally gives in.

Left alone at one point to watch kids at the beach, Elly disappears, possibly while trying to assist a boy who is in trouble in the water. We never see her again. The situation is not unlike that in L’avventura, when a woman disappears from a tiny island while she and her wealthy friends are on holiday. But instead of standing around looking unfazed and bored as usual, like the missing woman’s friends in Antonioni's film, the people in About Elly are stricken with anxiety and dash around in frenzied circles, just like many people you know would do in similar circumstances.

The dénouement fascinates.  Sepideh of course feels guilty for carelessly arranging Elly’s participation in the holiday trip, against her will. Now Elly's grieving fiancé shows up at the beach house and demands to know from Sepideh whether Elly had shared anything with her about Elly’s feelings for him. At issue is how best to honor the presumably deceased young woman.  Do you lie, to spare the man from further hurt by reinforcing his belief that Elly loved him till the end, when she didn’t? Or do you tell the truth, which preserves Elly’s integrity but leaves her sorrowful fiancé to struggle with posthumous rejection by the woman he continues to love? What would you do? (In Farsi & German) Grade: B+ (02/13/10).

Add: Have you ever watched a Tehran chick play beach volleyball in a chador and headscarf? Sepideh does it here with a flourish, so to speak. OK, here's an IMDb factoid, Jack-of-All-Trades Dept.: Asghar Farhadi was the Director, Screenwriter, Producer, Production Designer & Costume Designer for Elly.

AJAMI (Scandar Copti & Yaron Shani, Israel/Germany, 2009, 120 m). Ajami is a religiously mixed, multiethnic community of Muslims and Christians in Jaffa, Israel. The film presents 5 stories, each a slice of life in Ajami. There are a number of young players, most nonprofessionals. I have attempted to see this movie twice now and fell asleep through much of both screenings. I had the same problem with Synecdoche New York: it took a third screening, in the morning, after two strong coffees, for me to see it through, and I had to stand up for most of that. I don't think it's just me. Synecdoche was just too full of stuff, too overwhelming. I feel that way about Ajami as well. Too hard to keep the characters straight. Add to that the fact that I found no character who perked my interest, and you've got a sure fire formula for a nap. Lots of people liked this one. But I gave up. (In Arabic and Hebrew) Grade: NG (no grade:slept for at least 1 hour)  (02/13/10).

THE ART OF THE STEAL (Don Argott, US, 2009, 101 m). Until we spent a week in Philadelphia in 1998, neither Jo Ann nor I had ever heard of the Barnes Collection. We read about the place, with its staggering trove of impressionist, post impressionist and early modern paintings (there are 171 Cézannes alone; the entire collection is now valued at several billion dollars, but no one really knows how much it’s all worth). We learned about Barnes’s controversial approach to art installation (his preference for mixing paintings and small sculptures by different artists together with furniture and other artifacts that are all unified by some aesthetic thread). 

We wanted to rush right out to Merion, the suburb where the collection is housed. I phoned and was firmly informed by the reservation clerk that one needed tickets one or more months in advance, for the number of people allowed per day was severely limited because of impact on the neighborhood. I sought her mercy, mentioning that we were from Oregon, had only a few days here, hadn’t known before about the collection, and so on. After a moment or two she interrupted my blathering by proudly mentioning that they had just turned down a similar request for a visiting ambassador from another country. Sigh. We have read from time to time since then about struggles among the collection’s managers (at Lincoln University), its board of directors, powerful art and financial interests in downtown Philadelphia, and, not least, the collection’s neighbors in Merion. The Art of the Steal tells this complex story.

Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) was trained as a physician but never practiced medicine. Instead he studied chemistry and ultimately got very rich from manufacturing and marketing a mild silver nitrate antimicrobial solution - branded as Argyrol - that became universally used in newborns to prevent gonorrhea. He soon amassed enough of a fortune to begin purchasing art, mainly contemporary French works, in large volumes. He designed a building in Merion to house the collection, which opened in 1922. After Barnes’s death in 1951, there were protégés aplenty to carry on his vision and enough money to sustain the collection’s unique niche.  In the fullness of time, however, all too human qualities of greed, envy, and prestige gradually surfaced, especially after the death of Barnes’s long time associate and subsequent collection director Violette de Mazia, in 1988.

For the past 20 years there has been a string of legal battles as various interests fought for control and ownership of the collection. It is this struggle that is the main focus of the film. Ultimately a consortium of challengers (The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Annenberg Foundation principal among them) succeeded in winning permission to move the collection to downtown Philadelphia. That move is happening as we speak (as of this week 5 of the 24 galleries have been closed for moving). Grades: Archival significance: A; Film production values: B-. Overall grade: B+ (02/04/10).

Add: It's a shame to see The Barnes close in Merion. Matisse once said, after staying as Barnes's guest, that The Barnes was "the only sane place to see art in America." Some think that the multiple pressures to dismantle and relocate the collection are the ultimate result of Barnes' incessant nastiness to other powers that be. To say that he was a curmudgeon is a vast understatement. His enemies were too numerous to count. He was a New Deal liberal in a highly conservative environment. He was a populist: he wanted his art to be accessible to ordinary people, not holed up in some elite fortress.

Barnes was disgusted by art critics, museum leaders, investors and other art world mavens. (He had been furious with art critics from early on because they ridiculed him for buying “junk” – like the Cézannes, the Matisses, the Renoirs, and on and on.) He especially hated Philadelphia and its leaders, calling the city "a disgusting intellectual slum." Some might see the triumph of big Philly money to get the collection moved downtown as just plain payback. More likely is that art interests downtown are hoping to finesse ownership into the hands of the Philadelphia Museum of Art or some other holding entity without actually having to pay for the collection.

BAD DAY TO GO FISHING  (Mal día para pescar)  (Álvaro Brechner, Uruguay/Spain, 2009, 110 m). After making three short narrative films (two comedies and a drama), Álvaro Brechner now debuts with his first feature length film, directing, writing, and producing Bad Day.

A persuasive, slick sociopath named Orsini (Gary Piquer), who calls himself “Prince,” makes money by traveling from one small Uruguayan town to another, dragging along an aging former professional wrestling champion, Jacob van Oppen (Finnish actor Jouko Ahola), to fight locals in rigged matches for a (fake) $1,000 purse. It’s the betting that lines Orsini’s pockets. But van Oppen’s fame increasingly exceeds his declining grasp.

We’ve seen variations on this scenario for ages. There’s Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961), where the nefarious George C. Scott character takes pool shark Paul Newman under his not very protective wing, and any number of movies about boxing, the most memorable of which is Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). In that film we heard one of filmdom's most remembered lines, when Brando’s boxer Terry says to his manager, “You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money…I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” More variations on this theme include women treated like animal performers, for example, in Max Ophüls Lola Montès (1955) and Fellini’s La Strada (1954).

In the town of Santa Maria, things begin to unravel for this pair. A prearranged match goes awry when the stooge gets too drunk to fight. A woman in the audience who lusts after the prize money nags her husband to take on van Oppen. This guy is as big as Rhode Island. Van Oppen doesn’t look wildly enthused. Prince Orsini looks stricken. ‘Ding.’ The fight’s on. Who will win? What will be the consequences? Can Orsini and van Oppen settle their differences and move on? In this small, seamy movie, how much do we even care about the answers in the way we cared about Terry in Waterfront? Well, in a way it doesn't matter too much, because the theme of dark comedy that finds expression throughout this film is reward enough for watching it. (In Spanish & English)  Grade: B (02/18/10).

CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH (Lu Chuan, China/Hong Kong, 2009, 135 m).AMONG MY TOP 5 PIFF FILMS! This is a docudrama about the incredibly brutal Japanese invasion of the Chinese city of Nanking, in 1937. "The Rape of Nanking" it was called, a reference to a terrible series of atrocities. The filmmakers succeed in juxtaposing Chinese and Japanese perspectives, and show instances of compassion on both sides of this awful chapter in the Pacific War. The film is shot in black & white, giving this documentary a 1930s gloss of validity.

To me, this is a perfect film, even though it's quite violent. In one sequence, a young child is grabbed up by a Japanese soldier and hurled out a 2nd or 3rd story window. Another episode about rape and forced prostitution offers us lurid, highly graphic close up scenes of the "comfort women" at work.  Very grim business. On a much larger scale, the big battle sequences that permeate some of the film are ingeniously intercut with footage showing quieter surrounds, and certainly a softer, happier looking male lead.

This film is also full of emotionally charged exchanges, intensely passionate at times. Early on in the film, there's a "feeling" - not an emotion, but an almost physical feeling - of anxiety, and the beginnings of a change in the liquidity or buoyancy of the air of an almost transcendent quality. It feels like a battle of epic proportions is inevitably brewing.

When close ups of people’s faces loom large in the frame, while the background activity carries on its own agenda, I am reminded of one of Eisenstein’s favorite modes of composition. There may even be an homage to Eisenstein in this film: a pram, not bumping down those stair steps as in Battleship Potemkin, but twisted, turned on its side, and abandoned in the street. (In Mandarin) Grade: A (02/21/10).

Add: Those long-held close up shots of people’s faces also remind me of Cassavetes père, and of photographer Walker Evans’ appeal for us to pay closer attention to the lives around us: "Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long." 

DAWSON DAWSON ISLA 10 (Dawson Island 10) (Miguel Littin, Chile, 2009, 117 m). A dramatization of real events, this story concerns the fate of Salvador Allende’s top officials and staff - those still alive, that is – after they were spirited away - late in late 1973 and early 1974 - by the Pinochet government to a make-do prison for political prisoners on a tiny, godforsaken, southern island off the Chilean coast, where we watch them suffer and die.
                          
This is a decent enough movie, maybe even better. But I just couldn't get into it - emotionally, politically, or in any other way. Maybe I'm just fatigued from movie gazing and writing. So probably this was sort of an off night, reflected in my somewhat low “B“ grade for Dawson. But there are a couple of points that I think justify my grade at least a little bit, though they could just be post hoc rartionalizations. First, we’ve had several other recent films that deal with oppression and disappearances in Latin America. This wasn’t one of the best. (I’ll be back with titles for a few others when times permits.)

The second and far more important issue is whether there are some films that are more-or-less audience specific, i.e., intended for and most appreciated by people who live in the nation or region from which the film’s story originates. In particular, I think that certain films - inspired, like Dawson, by survivors and other witnesses of massive traumatic events like war, earthquakes, floods, bloody political coups and revolutions, and genocidal and related crimes against humanity - are especially helpful for people in a nation or region that has been directly damaged by a traumatic disaster.

We have seen another film in this festival, The Protector, that I think serves a similar purpose, in this case as a stimulus for reflection and emotional healing among people in the former Czechoslovakia, who were treated very badly by the Nazis. Contemporary German cinema certainly has been and still is producing similar works. It isn't uncommon for film to give people what they need in or after difficult times. I think this is an important function of film. We saw a Bosnian film in last year's festival about a village of women and children, altered so catastrophically by the killing of all the village men in the Bosnian war.

Viewing a film like this, one can easily imagine its cathartic impact on Chileans who were alive in the early 1970s. Many no doubt responded with a welling up of deep, painful feelings. Watching such a film can help an affected person (say, someone suffering from chronic PTSD or depression) to psychologically and emotionally work through and recover from the psychic traumas they had sustained and endured. [But here's an important caveat: cathartic experience as I've described it can also have temporary disorganizing effects on personality and behavior, cause distressing levels of anxiety, and adversely influence alcohol and drug problems. The assistance of a professional therapist or supervised paraprofessional therapy assistant may be crucial to success and limit disruptions in personal and family life.]

I should say here that healing through national catharsis is by no means the only function of a film like Dawson. Stories of national heros and martyrs are central to the identity of all nations. Perhaps of even more importance is that such films may also help reinforce the views of those activists who believe that their struggle isn't over. Thus, in Chile for example, people still demonstrate about the disappearances of the 70s and 80s and demand government probes.

A U.S. audience cannot possibly experience the impact of this film in the same way that many Chileans probably do. We can empathize, we can feel compassion, we can think of other situations in the world where very bad things have happened to hundreds of thousands of people or more. We can fantasize about some totalitarian regime taking power in the U.S., executing or indefinitely confining leaders of political opposition groups (Though the casts of characters may differ, such fantasies trouble people on both extreme ends of our political spectrum.)

Will we rate such a film, a film like this one, as high, as important to the national consciousness, the national character, as the Chileans might rate it? There are many films about the plights of others with which we can almost completely identify. They deal with issues and circumstances that occur universally. That may be the perspective of Americans who think very highly of Dawson. It didn’t happen for me.  (In Spanish)  Grade: B (02/24/10)

FISH TANK  (Andrea Arnold, UK, 2009, 122 m). We course through familiar territory in this coming-of-age story.  Recall the movie Thirteen? Tracy, an early teen (Rachel Evan Wood), is furious with her recovering mom Melanie (Holly Hunter), who is involved in an on-again-off-again relationship with a man she met in drug rehab, whom Tracy disapproves of. The thing that really gets to her, whether she realizes it or not, is that when she most needs her mother to rely on, preoccupied Melanie seems as adolescent as Tracy.

Now you have the basic plot in Fish Tank. A young teen girl, Mia (Katie Jarvis), who yearns for acceptance and love, is burdened by a single mum, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), who is literally squirming with libidinal hunger most hours of the day and night.  That’s the way kids are, right?  Enter a handsome, empathic fellow who seems genuinely interested in the Mia’s welfare as well as mum’s bum. If only.

The parallels end here. The difference between the girls is that Mia in Fish Tank is more self contained, less crippled by rage, and seems possibly more likely to succeed than Tracy in Thirteen. The other difference is that Tracy has the benefit of being loved very much by Melanie, while Joanne has never offered Mia the support and acceptance she needs.

This is the 2nd feature film by Ms. Arnold (she made an Oscar-winning short a few years ago).  Her first was Red Road, the tale of a woman whose post-traumatic stress symptoms after the deaths of her husband and daughter are exacerbated when she spots the perpetrator living freely, when she thought he was still in prison. Fish Tank lacks the originality and tension that kept me on edge throughout Red Road. (In Britspeak) Grade: B (02/03/10).

FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES (Gerald Peary, US, 2009, 80 m).  Nicely crafted, straightforward take on the history of film reviewing and criticism.  For those of us who enjoy writing and reading about film, this documentary movie is a treasure (I could hardly wait to buy the DVD from Gerald Peary himself, who was present for this screening). Most of the best known critics in America are interviewed: their personal voices are heard through this film. Snippets of these talking heads are many and important. Stanley Kauffmann and Andrew Sarris – the two deans among current film critics, each with a record of writing on film for over 50 years – are interviewed at length (presented in properly small clips). Missing in action are Manohla Dargis [NY Times], Peter Travers [Rolling Stone], and David Denby and Anthony Lane [The New Yorker].  There is homage to the pioneers: people like Robert E. Sherwood, James Agee, and Manny Farber, and the generation that followed: e.g., Bosley Crowther, Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael. Patricia Clarkson narrates. This film is an unprecedented contribution to the film world and an important visual record of American film criticism.  Grades: B (general audiences); A (film reviewers and anyone interested in film criticism); B+ (aggregate) (02/14/10)

Add: Dr. Peary (he holds a PhD in communications) has had a long career as a published film critic and reviewer and a university film studies professor. Since 1996 he has written weekly on film for the Boston Phoenix; he also heads the film studies program at Suffolk University in Boston. This is his first film.

A panel discussion after the film included Peary, Sean Levy and D. K. Holm, among others. There was much discussion devoted to the demise of print journalism in favor of on-line film reviewing. Peary said that while his film mentions that 28 print film critics have lost their jobs in the last few years, he has found that the true number is now around 60. Shawn Levy observed that fewer art films and foreign language films are distributed in the U.S. than than in the past. When someone asked what skills are needed to be an effective film critic, Erik Henriksen, Senior Editor of the Portland Mercury newspaper, said that a good working knowledge of film and film history is key, but the most important skill of all is the ability to write well.

FOREVER ENTHRALLED (Mei Lanfang) (Chen Kaige, China/Hong Kong, 2008, 147 m). In 1993, Chen made the period narrative drama, Farewell My Concubine (co-winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year), about two male performers - one classically masculine, the other demure and decidedly feminine - who met as apprentices in the Peking Opera and continued to be friends and actors together for the next 50 years. Their comfortable, celebrity life was undone by the devastations of the Cultural Revolution, which we witness in all its crazed destructiveness. The screenplay was adapted from Lilian Lee’s novel of the same name, though many details in this film were based on Chen’s personal experiences when he himself was attacked during the Cultural Revolution, purged and forced to denounce his own father, an act he later regretted.  

Now Chen gives us another period piece, a biopic set a few decades earlier than Concubine, about Mei Lanfang (1894 - 1961), recognized as one of the greatest Peking Opera singers. Mei achieved international celebrity: Charlie Chaplin and Sergei Eisenstein were among those foreigners who came to see him perform; Eisenstein even made a film of him. In the 1920s, he performed on Broadway. In the early 1930s, after Japan occupied Manchuria, Mei refused to sing in public as his way of denouncing the occupation.

Mei stirred up a greater hornet’s nest of controversy, especially with his wife and the Opera company, when he became involved in a love affair with his counterpart in the company, the singer Meng Xiaodong (Zhang Ziyi), a woman who excelled in male roles. Their sometimes tempestuous relationship led Meng to nearly kill Mei with a pistol.

Zhang Ziyi, the woman with the Luger, is a lovely but dangerous woman. We’ve known her since she was a smoldering 20-ish daredevil, when we were introduced 10 years ago in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Thereafter, we saw each other periodically for quite awhile, in Jet Li’s Hero (2002); House of Flying Daggers (2004); 2046 (2004);and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). This film doesn’t hold a candle to Concubine. The principals in that film were mesmerizing.  Not so here. I became bored and left after the first half. (In Mandarin) Grade: NG (I left after 70 minutes; the film ran 147 minutes, which, given its limited content, was inexcusable.) (02/23/10).

Add: As a supporter of the “auteur model” of filmmaking (though I grant you that, as with novelists, many filmmakers only have one or two good films in them), I must confess that predicting the quality of a film this year according to who directed has not been that helpful. Chen made several fine films in the 1990s: besides Concubine, there was Temptress Moon (1996), and The Emperor and the Assassin.(1998). Enthralled is lackluster next to those three.

GARBAGE DREAMS (Mai Iskander, Egypt/US, 2009, 82 m). SPOILER ALERT!

Copts and Robbers (alternative title)

I loved this movie. As the title tells us, it's about waste. It is not only an absorbing documentary about how Cairo deals with its garbage, but also a brilliantly realized sort of political thriller, chock full of surprises, some small, others killer. Consider reading this after you've seen the film.

Cairo has never had a coordinated system for waste management. Instead it's a privatized, fragmented non-system. Fortunately, at what may be the largest garbage pile in the middle east, on Cairo's outskirts, there is, living in the garbage, a permanent enclave - a large township, really - built by a displaced religious colony, a Coptic Christian group, the Zabaleen, about 60,000 strong. To support themselves (they are outcasts, considered by many Muslims to be beneath even foreign laborers), the Zabaleen have for 100 years been willing to collect and dispose of much of the city's garbage, provided that, in return, the city would continue a policy permitting the group to maintain a settlement within the garbage grounds. The city has always renewed its pledge to leave the Copts alone, and to let them live in the refuse as they choose. Meanwhile the Zabaleen have perfected the business of sorting garbage and selling the stuff to various middle men. They nab stuff smaller than your pinky and find a way to get money for it. That means better cashflow for the colony. It's been a favorable symbiosis.

Until recently, that is. Now there's a vicious game afoot of Copts and Robbers. The Robbers are the usual suspects in schemes to bilk billions from developing nations, aided by powerful players within countries needing big loans. (See my review of The Shock Doctrine, below.) In this case we have the federal government, a.k.a. Hosni Mubarak; several multi-national waste management corporations; the International Monetary Fund; the World Bank; and assorted friends, brokers, peddlers, groupies and hangers on. The fleecing of the country is carried out under the guise that the only hope for stabilizing its economy is for the state to initiate fiscal "reforms," free market conditions and radical cuts in government spending ASAP.

Thereby, debt get serviced, international loans are repaid, foreign ccorporations (and a few insiders, within the country) grow richer, and the only costs are widespread unemployment, reduced health and education benefits, and a pricetag on what had been free things, like water. In the Cairo garbage matter, a deal goes down: the federal government will outsource waste management services to foreign corporations, which will bring in workers from Spain and elsewhere to do the heavy lifting and run the landfills. These changes will abolish both habitat and livelihood for the Zabaleen people dwelling in the dump. Sixty thousand homeless, with a couple of piastres in their pockets. In fact, the new garbage scheme is already underway, as we see in the film.

The Copts are no dummies. They've been surviving on the margins for centuries. They're good at it. In the face of this latest threat to their existence, they dig in, keep working, lobby everyone, and check out the competition (Human Encounters 101: always know and stick close to your enemies; count coup). They're searching, hoping to expose deficiencies that will make their methods and cost-benefit ratios look relatively more appealing. They're also taking steps to upgrade the fundamental sophistication of their operations. Threre has for many years been a single, large multi-level school in their garbage dump settlement. Now they are teaching computer courses and business management practices to young adults there. But, despite the Zabaleen's resourceful approaches, several individuals who speak in the film say they are already not making ends meet, their income dwindling because they cannot control a sufficient portion of the garbage business in the face of the foreign operations,

At one point, a young Zabaleen man returns home from a site visit to a garbage processing plant in Wales, run by one of the companies that is coming into Cairo now. The young man tells his elders that the Welsh have impressive machinery to speed up the complicated process of picking and sorting, using the minimum number of workers, to reduce costs. He says he was appalled by the consequences of this situation. The plant manager has forbidden anyone to slow down the conveyer belt sorting lines, to keep production up. The sorters, who are already dancing as fast as they can, have no alternative but to spend almost no time examining an item before making an instant decision to keep it or let it go. Much more of a garbage load is lost this way, due to inadequate sorting, thus decreasing the value of the load. Copts recycle 80% of garbage they process; the Welsh and their international brothers are obligated by their contracts with the Egyptians to recycle only 20%. The young man sums up by saying, "The Welsh have the technology, but no precision." (In Arabic) Grade: A- (02/21/10).

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (La fille du RER) (André Téchiné, France, 2009, 110 m). The adventures of a very twisted young woman and her nefarious boyfriend failed to engage my attention. Freighted with a clumsy script, ham handed editing and a lackluster set of performances, the film also failed to provide a motive or any sensible explanation for pivotal events (like the scenes surrounding the girl’s factitious claim of having been the victim of an anti-Semitic attack, and she's a shiksa no less!). Come on, there's a lot better stuff to watch. (In French) Grade: C- (02/04/10).

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Män som hatar kvinnor) (Niels Arden Oplev, Sweden/Denmark/Germany, 2009, 152 m).This is a humdinger of a whodunit!  It’s got mystery, intrigue, violence (sexual and otherwise), angst, extortion, Nazism (old fashioned and neo), multiple suspects, burning bodies, missing persons, old unsolved murders, and a fortune at stake.

It also features the oddest detective couple you’ve seen in a while: a mannerly, straight arrow, idealistic journalist recently convicted of breaking the law in his efforts to expose a powerful corporate crook, and a much younger, extravagantly tattooed, bisexual punk biker chick, who is a world class computer hacker.

Hyper-intense, wiry, 30 year old Noomi Rapace plays the biker Lisbeth Salander, opposite Michael Nyqvist’s more becalmed character, Mikael Blomqvist. Like the best ball player on the school grounds, Lisbeth is definitely somebody you want to have on your side. When you gaze into Rapace's tiny hard black eyes, it’s like staring back at a rattlesnake. And that's if she likes you.

The pace is breathtaking, the characters are interesting, and menace is ever present. What more could a person who likes crime films want? 

That’s all I’ll say, except that this film suffers inexcusably from difficult-to-read English subtitles. There are frequent scenes with white or nearly white backgrounds that make the all-white subtitle characters virtually disappear.  It’s like struggling to follow subtitles in an old Satyajit Ray film. This happens often enough to be annoying. It is, I suspect, a straightforward technical issue that could be repaired or prevented very simply by using the right software and a couple of key presses to add a thin black outline around each letter in places with white backgrounds. (I could do such outlines on my first computer, a Mac Plus, in 1987.) Why should anyone have to put up with 1950s third world technology from a high tech sophisticated nation? (In Swedish)  Grade: A- (would have been a “straight A” with better subtitles)  (02/14/10)

Add: Noomi Rapace was nominated for Best Actress for her work in Dragon Tattoo at the 2009 European Film Awards. Thanks to Paul Bingman’s scholarship (he must have taken a liking to Ms. Rapace like some of us other old guys), we have the link to a profile of her at: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/film/article7021904.ece (Speaking of Bingman’s scholarship, few people know that Paul was once Professor of Theoretical Urology at the Granada Medical College.)

This film is the first in a series of three, each based on a novel by Stieg Larsson. All 3 films were made in 2009 and star the same 2 actors playing their same characters.  Titles of the other 2: The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  Apparently these were made for Swedish TV and were not directed by Mr. Oplev. Maybe they won’t measure up to Dragon Tattoo, but let’s hope they both come our way so we can judge for ourselves.

HIPSTERS (Stilyagi) (Valeriy Todorovskiy, Russia, 2008, 125 m).  A musical comedy from Russia?  I’m just messing with you, right?  Wrong!  Here we have Swing Kids meets Westside Story. It’s the story of young urban 20-somethings bored crazy by the drab, repressive Moscow society of the mid-1950s.  It’s full of lovely young women, especially Oksana Akinshina (as Polly) and Evgeniya Brik (Katya), exuberant performances all around, and wonderful dance numbers.  All of this in vivid, cheery colors. 

The guys wear outrageously printed sport jackets, slacks and ties. Think of Britain’s Teddy Boys (same era), without their violence (well, except for the police, who routinely raid Hipster parties to draw a little blood). Todorovskiy succeeds in setting the correct mood for this film: post-adolescent defiance of authority while having a hell of a good time. What’s not to like in this movie? (In Russian) Grade: B+  (02/01/10).

HOME (Ursula Meier, Switzerland/France/Belgium, 2008, 95 m). SPOILER ALERT! An altogether peculiar film that succeeds in accomplishing something I had thought to be impossible: wasting the talents of Isabelle Huppert. She plays Marthe, a neurotic woman on the edge (of exactly what we are never told), who needs to live in an isolated rural setting in order to feel stable and content. To that end, she, her husband, and their 3 children have set up housekeeping in about the most underpopulated area you’re likely to find on flat land in the heart of Western Europe. 

Besides their ugly, squared off house, there is no other structure on the distant horizon (though we discover there are a few hidden neighbors not far away). Right outside beyond their front yard is a long section of divided highway that was abandoned 10 years earlier, before it had ever been used. The family have extended their front yard space by setting things out on the road (the barbecue, the TV satellite dish). But everyone (except the 20-ish older daughter who’s bored silly) seems happy out here in nowhere land. It’s not what I’d call bucolic countryside, but there are paths and gullies and drainpipes you can crawl through, and a large shade tree not far away for midday picnics, and even an old swimming pool on the property that the family are gradually restoring.

And then, out of the blue, a paving crew comes along one day to resurface the road, and within a few days there are literally thousands of cars and trucks roaring by. This changes everything. The din of traffic noise saturates the air inside the house. The family seal all the windows with concrete blocks and mortar to cut off the sound, leaving the interiors dark all day. The older daughter takes off one day, apparently for good, with a guy passing by in a Porsche. Good riddance.

Huppert’s character, Marthe, intent upon preserving a sense of “home,” goes not-so-quietly bonkers. The father, middle daughter and young son, together with the family cat, seem able to muddle along. The only accomplished element here is the tension that builds as one worries about somebody in the family being struck and killed by a vehicle while attempting to cross the road. Near the end Marthe, though she is supposed to be physically weakened by her condition, in a frenzy wields a sledge hammer to knock some of the blocks out, to let light into the house once again.

This film is an example of the hazards of “message” films. OK, our health and welfare require freedom from the toxic byproducts of modern living. Right. But even if you take every conceivable step to actualize this precept,"civilization" keeps on expanding, sending out its tentacles to destroy the microcosm of freedom one has worked so hard to establish (physical freedom, mental freedom). Goodness, I thought we already knew that.

This business with Marthe and the blocked out windows is a bit more interesting, suggesting to one of my film friends - I'm sorry I cannot remember who to give the credit to - the thought that one’s home can be a fortress to shut out the world or a launching pad ("pad" in the Beat sense = home, a place of shelter, sleep, food, clothing, love) to prepare family members to move out successfully into the world. But is this modest homily so gravid that it merits an entire movie? (In French) Grade: C+ (02/05/10).

I AM LOVE (Lo sono l’amore) (Luca Guadagnino, Italy, 2009, 120 m). CONSUMER ALERT! Presumably intended as a Tilda Swinton star vehicle, this wretched melodrama is about how the dull Milanese upper class fritter away their time. The project cannot be salvaged by Ms. Swinton alone, though she pulls her own weight well, as usual.

In fairness, it might be said that the Milanese elite no doubt get on no differently than the dull rich people of any country. That said, perhaps wealthy Italians do "nothing" better than other rich people do. More evidence: Bernardo Bertolucci's Tuscan tale of banal loungeabouts ogling Liv Tyler, Stealing Beauty (1996). Or, reaching way back, how about the bored, amoral trust fund children, now grown up, who stand around in Antonioni's L'avventura (1960)?

Guadagnino and his team make majestic emotional mountains out of molehills here, aided by an extravagant musical score that builds and soars with such flamboyance near the end, that you hardly notice the fact that no one is really doing anything on screen. People are just standing around, transfixed, staring into the middle distance, as if the robust aroma of a wholesome fart were wafting either toward or away from each of them. I suspect that the director actually told them to stand in those silly poses. (In Italian, Russian and English) Grade: D (02/11/10).

Add: I have decided to spare you the story of my personal encounters with some upper middle class people from Milan in the resort town of Bellagio, on Lake Como, in the mountains of Lombardy, years ago during a flood. I will tell you something though. This year we had a PIFF film, Vincere, about Benito Mussolini, so in passing I should point out that it was near the northwest shore of Lake Como where Mussolini was apprehended in April, 1945, as he was attempting to cross north into Switzerland, after his government fell. He was soon hanged by Resistance fighters in a nearby town at the west end of the lake, along with his mistress and several senior officials.

THE INHERITORS (Los herederos) (Eugenio Polgovsky, Mexico, 2008, 90 m). AMONG MY TOP 5 PIFF FILMS! An extraordinary, lyrical, by turns uplifting and sad film, that documents the long, hard work days put in by all kids in most of rural Mexico, except for the very youngest. The setting here is in Northern Mexico, but it could be anywhere in the country, or, for that matter, in much of Central and parts of South America. The film pointedly raises the unspoken question of whether these unschooled children will, in a few short years, be prepared to inherit their country.

The kids are good at what they do. They teach each other skills. One boy of perhaps 12 chops kindling wood with a hatchet. He chops very rapidly, like a professional chef slicing vegetables, the blade coming within a half-inch of his fingertips. It’s both fascinating and distressing to watch him. These kids are weary by evening: you see fatigue in their faces like that in their parents’. By middle class standards - here and in Mexico - they have little or no childhood, in the sense of that idyllic time for carefree play that we believe children need, to grow up whole.

This is a psychologically interesting question. No one in his right mind will dispute the value of education. Some of the most ardent pro-education parents we’ve met anywhere are from a poor Mexican family we know. We’ve frequently revisited this family and another as well, in Barra de Navidad, over the years, watching their kids grow, how their businesses move along (or don’t), to find that the kids in both families remain on track for an adequate education. How they will eventually prosper is anybody’s guess in a country as corrupt and financially volatile as Mexico.

Both heads of household, Vicente Salas (from Guerrero), and Pedro Fernandez (from Mitla) are shopkeepers, catering to tourists; their shops are three short blocks apart. Both families live in the Barrio. The younger and financially struggling Salases (Vicente and Candy) escaped from impoverished families that have lived forever in the mountains of the state of Guerrero, to the south, which was a very dangerous area of Mexico for years, like the state of Sinaloa, before the recent upticks in violence elsewhere in the country. Jo Ann and I met the Salases in 2001, just as Vicente’s wife was going into labor with their firstborn. We were as nervous as grandparents awaiting the outcome, which was a perfectly normal boy, Ismael.

Ismael was 5 when we saw him last, in 2006, and he was doing well in first grade and liked school. It’s a real help that Vicente's shop is literally next door to the elementary school that everyone – rich and poor alike – attend. (It’s only the poor who won’t send their children to school who are not accommodated.) Around the Salas's quarters there are kid’s books everywhere: on the floor, a tall stack in a corner.  Not comics or trash, but little books that teach, as Vicente demonstrated to us. Ricardo, the middle son, is in kindergarten in the Barrio. Ricardo and the kid brother Abraham, who’s 3, will also attend the school next door, if, Vicente says, his business doesn’t fail.  Even if it does, he says, they will never go back to Guerrero.

The older Ferdandez family are more prosperous. Their home is in the little town of Mitla, on the outskirts of Ciudad Oaxaca. The town sits right up against the Mitla ruins that everyone visits. This family goes back and forth periodically between Barra and Mitla. Down south they buy product to bring north to sell in Barra. In and around Ciudad Oaxaca there’s an abundance of serious art, rugs, pottery and tchotchkes, but it helps to have the right connections to get the best goods. Pedro has connections, I’m sure.  Pedro is the patriarch, a handsome, softspoken man. Somewhere along the line, we became interested in carved, painted exotic wooden figures, called alebrijes, that are made by native Mexicans in Oaxaca. In Barra, at the Fernandez shops, the quality of their alebrijes - large and small alike - is better than any we saw on display in Oaxaca itself.

The family’s younger son surprised everybody, I think they said, by scoring better on the college entrance exam than Adelfo, his older brother, who was the first person we ever spoke with when we first came to Barra in 1998. So off the kid goes, to become an architect, I think. Adelfo had longed for college in order to become a school teacher (computer sciences). His most enjoyable activity in high school had been tutoring younger kids in math and computers.
Adelfo’s brother will graduate in a few years, so the family might then be able to assist Adelfo to go to college.  But now he has a wife and two very young children. He tells me that he still has plans to advance himself. His present idea is to take business courses and study French, to prepare himself to run a French import business.

Salomon Diaz, a taxi driver whom we met in 2003 in Ciudad Oaxaca, had escaped 10 years earlier from a dead end life toiling in the maguey fields down in the isthmus region of southern Oaxaca state, where 80% of the population never touch money. He works long hours to put his two sons through college at the local public university. One is preparing to be an architect, the other a lawyer. These are the kids - Salomon's, Pedro's, perhaps even Vicente's kids - who will lead the inheritors. Not many of the tired, uneducated peasant children we see in this film will have the drive to make a better life, like Salomon has and Vicente aspires to do.

Is there possibly another side to this story? I recall the pride I felt as a child in mastering tasks like the construction of wooden toys, or sawing firewood, or taking the cross town bus to mow some Church lady’s lawn. Progress toward competence and resulting self reliance may be better preparation for a decent life than lounging around doing video games, text messaging, and swimming in the backyard pool. This is a rigged discussion, of course, because I’m only mentioning the two extremes. What would happen if rural Mexican kids had a mix of work and school, work and play?

We see children working at various enterprises that Jo Ann and I have observed all over Mexico: e.g., chopping down dead sugar cane stalks, making bricks, harvesting vegetables and fruits. On one farm we also get closeups of the land itself: way up the hillside (the least nutritious soil), sloped, sometimes steeply, full of rocks, erosion prone. Since the Mexican Revolution nearly 100 years ago, agrarian reform has regularly been high on the list of presidential and gubernatorial (failed) campaign promises. On the handful of occasions when the government actually has distributed land, it is almost invariably of poor quality, not really fit for anything but skimpy crop growth, like what we see in this film.

OK, to wrap it up, everything in this film feels entirely authentic and will fill gaps in virtually any tourist’s knowledge of the contemporary Mexican people, their lands, their toils, their lives behind the façades one sees driving swiftly by or holed up in some tourist ghetto. The film certainly worked that way for me, and I already knew Mexico a good deal better than the average American. (In Spanish) Grade: A  (02/25/10)

Add: Jo Ann and I have each - separately or together - been frequent and enthusiastic guests in Mexico. Seems as if my visits often corresponded with big events. I was in Acapulco the day Fidel Castro marched into Havana at New Years, 1959. In Cabo San Lucas at New Years, 1994, when NAFTA began and, in response, Subcomandante Marcos emerged as spokesman and leader of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas. In Barra with Jo Ann the day Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld invaded Iraq, in March, 2003. In Oaxaca later that same year when Marcos organized a massive march on the capital in Mexico City. On various rental car trips, we have logged several thousand kilometers driving in 6 Mexican states, and from sea level to over 11,000 feet on the side of an extinct volcano. (There are roads that we took as recently as 2006 that we would not drive on today because of the risk of kidnapping or other violence.)

LEARNING FROM LIGHT: THE VISION OF I. M. PEI (Bo Landin & Sterling Van Wagenen, US, 2009, 84 m). Smartly made, beautifully photographed biodoc about the prolific 92 year old legendary Chinese-born American architect I. M. Pei, known for his many public buildings around the world, including the John F. Kennedy Library & Museum (Boston), the National Gallery of Art East Building (Washington, D.C.), the Louvre Pyramid (Paris), the Bank of China Tower (Hong Kong), and the main architectural subject in this film, the resplendent Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. Pei (pronounced "pay"), interviewed at length for the film, says he’s always liked doing projects around the world.  He loves to read history and thereby get a deeper feeling for what a building should look like to harmonize with the local environment and the historic and cultural context surrounding it. He says that if he had been ignorant about Islam, for example, he would not have known that in certain parts of an Islamic structure, there can be no images of humans or animals.

Pei says that, for him, the following 4 factors are the most important considerations for designing any new building: "form, space, light, and movement."
Hey, what happened to function? I was taught that always, in designing anything, "form follows function." I wonder sometimes whether the heavyweight architects really care all that much about functionality. I think Pei's omission of this dimension is telling. Here in Portland, post-modern architect Robert Graves designed a downtown city office building - his first completed building larger than a private residence - that is featured in most international 20th Century architectural anthologies (along with Pietro Belluschi's Equitable Life building).

But inside, where the good denizens of city government toil on our behalf, the dark, narrow corridors feel cramped and every window is a tiny little square, so that lack of sufficient natural lighting in the offices has always been a problem. Almost all of the structures that Frank Lloyd Wright designed were plagued by water leakage. Pei himself was at the center of a controversy years ago when the Hancock Tower he designed in Boston developed severe problems with its glass skin. Are these superstar architects interested in anything more than the look of the buildings they design? You get the feeling from Pei that he might not so secretly think of all his buildings as monuments to himself. Pei says maybe he is through with big projects, but he wavers and hedges on this toward the end.  Grade: B+  (02/14/10)

Add: Co-director Sterling Van Wagenen was present for this screening. He is a documentary filmmaker and editor who lives in Salt Lake City. He was a co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival. He said that it was somewhat difficult to work with Mr. Pei because of the latter's large ego. (He has a reputation for bullying clients not to insist on deviations from his original designs.) Filming the Doha Museum was a challenge because the filming project did not materialize until well into the construction process. In fact the filmmakers needed to turn to Al Jazeera for footage of the earlier stages of building.

LOOKING FOR ERIC (Ken Loach, UK/4 others, 2009, 116 m). Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) is not a happy man. He feels emotionally overwhelmed. Longstanding dreariness in his life was bad enough; now a new layer has fallen on him, a wave of crisis events piling up like leaves in November. The woman he had been living with has disappeared after her release from prison, by default bequeathing him two unruly teenage stepsons, both on the cusp of criminal activities.

His most pleasant moments come when looking after his granddaughter (Eric’s daughter is a student who has this newborn child). But baby care unavoidably brings him in contact with his ex-wife, with whom there’s much unfinished business. What respite can he snatch? Who will be there to catch him if he falters?

Enter Eric Cantona, possibly in his heyday the greatest sports celebrity you never heard of. Cantona (Eric Cantona, playing himself), is, in actuality, a retired former French soccer superstar who played for England’s Manchester United side. He is now a professional film actor. Bishop is at first startled to see a vision of his #1 sports hero, Cantona, standing around casually in the same room with him. But anxiety soon turns to adulation, camaraderie and relief. The conceit here is that Bishop's mental images of Cantona, someone who exists only in Bishop’s ‘mind’s eye,’ can be so reassuring and supportive. It's well done.

Bishop feels renewed after his ‘encounters’ with ‘Cantona,’ whom he increasingly treats like a real companion and guru. (Apparently Cantona is famous for uttering philosophical aphorisms, and, if true, the film nicely parodies this habit.) This movie is punctuated by wonderful moments of drollery, and by the warm and affable friendship that the two Erics strike up.

Mr. Loach generously provided English subtitles for two films he made in working class Glasgow neighborhoods (My Name is Joe and Sweet Sixteen). Why didn't he do the same for this picture? Sheeeezz. Talk about mumblecore. (In serious Britspeak and French) Grade: B (02/26/10).

Add: Ken Loach is sometimes referred to (with good humor) as a social worker with a camera, because social problems provide prominent subtexts in many of his films. The particular talent of Loach's long time screenwriter, Paul Laverty, is to have social issues examined through the prism of a particular family's or families' experiences. Among Loach's more recent pictures, two concentrate on people living in low income communities in Glasgow. In one of these films, My Name is Joe (1998), recovery from alcoholism and the aimlessness of late teen boys are central issues.

In Sweet Sixteen (2002), the spotlight turns toward a broken working class home in Glasgow, where a teen son tries hard to help his jailbait mother ditch a parasitic, nasty boyfriend, and to help her financially as well in the only way he can think of, earning money through drug trafficking. The entire narrative in Bread and Roses (2000) is about labor union (SEIU) organizing among poor, minority, legal immigrants who work in janitorial services and garment making, for less than a living wage, in Los Angeles.

The psychological usefulness - comfort afforded, confidence bolstered - when Eric B imagines the presence of Eric C is clear enough. But is there a sociological message in LFE as well? Is it about the complexity and stressfulness of hassles in everyday life? The difficulties in solving family problems? Each of us could go on adding to this list of hypotheticals; I know I could. But it all seems contrived to me, like I'm imposing some social meaning where it isn't intended.

Retreating into sports-related fantasies at times of stress is hardly an isolated occurrence. As a youngster, in periods of upset, I myself would spend more time than usual reading about sports and listening to sports on the radio. Millions of people today somehow find satisfaction in playing games of "fantasy NFL football" where they 'draft' various actual players to form a 'team' (on paper). Using actual game statistics, they then calculate their wins and losses each week during the 4 month long season. Mental imagery of vicarious heroism and celebrity may be soothing to the soul, but I don't see how it can sooth society. Thoughts?

LOURDES (Jessica Hausner, Austria/France/Germany, 2009, 99 m.). SPOILER ALERT! Here's an unusual doc/dram (mix of documentary elements and enacted dramatic scenes) about the experience of making a pilgrimage to the famous French healing shrine and grotto. We receive this vicarious experience through the central character, Christine (Sylvie Testud), a pale blond woman - 30-something, petite, fey - who is quadriplegic (we aren't told how this happened). She has enjoyed visiting healing centers for a long time, always alone (we learn nothing about her background or family); the trips are the only occasions when she gets away from her house.

Lourdes appears to be a vast and worldly tourist destination. You expect the booths full of icons - little (and large) statues of the Virgin Mary, and the like - but who would have thought that such a place also has a small mall’s worth of shops, a huge full service bar, and a small dance hall with a Vegas-style sideshow featuring a couple of upbeat though untalented pop singers crooning duets.

In the event, Christine is handed along by nurses through what I gathered is the standard Lourdes drill: hot baths, communal prayer, group story telling about the handicaps and suffering of pilgrims, social events, hikes for those that can negotiate them, music (the nuns and nurses sing some lovely choruses for the pilgrims' benefit). Everything but weight loss diets are shown, and for all I know they offer those as well. Several secondary characters stand out. There's Sister Cécile (Elina Löwensohn), an icy, rail thin Sergeant Major type, barking out orders to everyone (think of Nurse Ratched in OFOTCN). And Maria (Léa Seydoux), a boystruck, spacey young nurse who's supposed to look after Christine.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of the film is its emphasis on caution about claims of miracle cures. Dramatic, lasting changes in one's physical health after visiting Lourdes are claimed to be unlikely. The point of the pilgrim's experience is held to be healing of the soul, not the body, and so on. If someone does appear to have had a miraculous physical "cure," the pilgrim is hustled off to a medical unit where doctors examine and, in some cases, do tests, to verify health status. If taken at face value, this is a surprsingly dispassionate, almost clinical/scientific perspective. Maybe their lawyers insisted that Lourdes officials take this approach as a risk management tactic to reduce lawsuits by uncured American pilgrims. (In French, German, Italian and English) Grade: B (02/13/10).

MID-AUGUST LUNCH (aka Ferragosto Dinner, or Pranzo di Ferragosto) (Gianni Di Gregorio, Italy, 2008, 75 m.). Exquisite, charming fable in which Gianni, an aging man who is far more fond of wine than work, feels squeezed in a vise of responsibities. He looks after his ancient mother and desperately needs to find money to pay back rent to avoid their eviction. His mother says that Gianni is a good son, a good boy (he must be 55): he loves to cook and loves to read to his mom. His building superintendent and another friend of Gianni's coincidentally ask him to take in their aging mothers (and a demented aunt) for a few days while the men each go off to recreate or fornicate in the countryside, as the case may be.  And all of this set on the same weekend! Gianni balks. The ante goes up. The super offers to waive most of the rent debt. The other man offers money. 

These are offers Gianni cannot refuse, so with all the grace of a condemned man he agrees to baby sit these 3 other old ladies along with his mom. The antics everyone gets into are hilarious, though the sentiments evoked are real. The film manages successfully to comingle humor with the difficult facts of life in old age. A Ferragosto feast is to be their last meal together (the 4 old women, Gianni and his drinking buddy “Viking”), before the 3 houseguests must depart. But the conviviality of the occasion gives everyone pause. (In Italian) Grade: A-  (02/05/10).

Add: Ferragosto, which I’d never heard of, is a week long celebration of Italian culture and cuisine, which begins each year around August 15.  Di Gregorio, the star and first time director, also wrote the screenplay for Gomorrah.

NOBODY TO WATCH OVER ME  (Dare mo mamotte kurenai) (Ryôichi Kimizuka, Japan, 2008, 118 m). SPOILER ALERT! There is a nasty medieval tradition, practiced to this day in Japan, of mobilizing and perpetrating unceasing social ostracism and worse against any family in which a member has killed another person. For centuries such families have been fair game for irate citizens to harass, threaten, destroy property and ruin lives. This harrassment apparently never ends.

The worst and not uncommon consequence of these practices is suicide by family members, motivated by guilt, the loss of a loved one, and an extreme experience of “losing face,” from which there seems to be no possible redemption. Our Japanese friends tell us that this primitive practice still goes on, though more in rural areas than in the cities.  In recent times it has been necessary to enact regulations that require law enforcement officials to protect families of suspected and convicted killers.

This film tells a story of how such practices devastate a small urban family, despite substantial effort by police to aid them.  Their teen son has been troubled for a long time by depression and social alienation, remaining isolated from family and friends. His aloof businessman father beats him regularly for not doing better in school, and at school he was routinely bullied to the degree that he now studies at home and never leaves the house. This is obviously a highly disturbed kid, though only his younger 15 year old sister, Saori (Mirai Shida), seems to notice. One day he goes to his sister's middle school where he stabs and kills two young girls on the playground, then rushes home to wash off the blood.

This event establishes a context for the heart of the film, the gradually evolving relationship between Saori and a police detective who attempts to keep her safe from intrusive reporters and angry citizens, Det. Takumi Katsuura (Kôichi Satô). In terms of casting and performances, these two make a fetching pair. Ms. Shida is remarkably poised, shy, distressed, angry: she displays a range of feelings that is spot on given the circumstances, but with subtlety. Katsuura is a troubled man. He is still struggling to cope with painful memories and feelings about another case a few years ago in which a young child was killed, a death Katsuura is convinced he could have prevented. And Katsuura's wife recently separated from him, taking their daughter along.

Bad things happen here. Saori’s mother, left alone briefly in her apartment, kills herself. The father is never again seen after a single early appearance in the film, and we don’t learn his whereabouts or fate.

The ending is positive, though to some extent we must stretch a bit to believe that Saori can understand a highly convoluted, philosophical appeal that Katsuura makes to her, something to the effect that by staying close to her family – her father and brother - she will be able to share their pain and, through that, survive herself. He asks her if she understands and after a long pause she affirms that she does. Good for her. I’m not sure that I fully understood what he meant. He’s obviously attempting to inoculate Saori against suicide, but, frankly, I’m not sure that he’s right. You can accuse me of being parochial, but I think she will need psychotherapy. (In Japanese) Grade: B+  (02/17/10).

NORA’S WILL (Cinco días sin Nora; Five Days Without Nora) (Mariana Chenillo, Mexico, 2008, 92 m). This narrative film, set in Mexico City, is not the story of Nora, but is centered on her husband José (Fernando Luján). José comes home one day to find Nora, his wife for decades, dead from an overdose. It was the 14th and final suicide attempt over her lifetime, and she finally had got it right.

Despite a dark and troubling launch, make no mistake, this is a love story. It’s a story of José’s experiences and reflections in the few days immediately following his wife’s death, and about the discoveries he makes as he wanders back through his life, discoveries about his wife, their marriage, and himself.
The film pulls us close to the inner experiences that we might guess José is having. One can imagine that it has taken the sucker punch of Nora’s suicide to break through the protective barriers that José had built: his closed, defensive mindset; his habit of turning away from feelings, if not from the very possibility of having feelings.   

The Jewish neighborhood where José and Nora lived - its dailiness (Stanley Kauffmann’s favorite term for the small routines of daily life), customs, religious influences, and sometimes larger than life characters - is, in a sense, a “supporting actor” here. The acting ensemble surrounding José are very nicely attuned to one another and enrich the story with welcome injections of humor. This is the first feature film directed (& written) by Mariana Chenillo.  (In Spanish)  Grade: B+  (02/28/10).

Add: Fernando Luján, now 72, has acted in over 100 projects, counting back to 1953. He’s completed three more films since Nora, and has another currently in post-production. To my knowledge, his films have only rarely been distributed in the U.S. The movie that I think is most accessible (in both senses), is the 1999 film, based on Garcia Marquez’ stories, Arturo Ripstein’s No One Writes to the Colonel, in which Luján plays the eponymous lead role.

NOTHING PERSONAL (Urszula Antoniak, Ireland/Netherlands, 2009, 85 m). AMONG MY TOP 5 PIFF FILMS! SPOILER ALERT!  Here is the most original and suspenseful love story I’ve witnessed on screen for ages. We have Martin (Stephen Rea, 63), a failed Irish writer whose wife died recently, and a much younger Dutch woman (Lotte Verbeek, 27), whose official name, according to the IMDb is Anne, though we know her as “You” (as in “Hey, You,” because she is unwilling to reveal her name to Martin). With regard to actual age differences between the actors, while Stephen Rea is 63 years old, in this film he looks 5 to 10 years younger and seems quite fit. You and he are an attractive couple who shine brighter when they're together. When Martin is able, that is, to get closer to You than two zip codes away.

We see them meet when Anne (You), traveling on foot through Connemara in County Galway, comes upon a small house, Martin's house, nestled in a little stand of evergreens, halfway out a short, narrow point high above the Atlantic. It is an exquisite place, at once both breathtaking and charming. A splendid place for love.

Well, if it’s to be, there’s plenty of work ahead. This is far from love at first sight. These people have each suffered losses and are learning to be alone in the world, to shed old identities. To seek serenity in solitude, or vice versa, whatever.  We can imagine that You and Martin have each been through more than their fair share of life’s difficulties, or believe they have, at least. Anne had recently divorced and left her old life in Amsterdam for a new one, alone and on the move in rural Ireland. Martin, in addition to his continuing painful bereavement, has health problems, the seriousness of which we learn gradually, sometimes at the same moment You also learns of it. And to top it off, Martin has finally faced up to the fact (or his conviction) that he can no longer write.

You is like a feral animal for whom ordinary contact with humans - sociability and conversation - are dangerous activities. Early on, we hear her sound like a wild animal, screaming fiercely in self defense, after she rolls out of a moving truck to avoid being raped by a local douchebag. Her screams are primal, like she’s an animal in distress (which, of course, she is), wounded, or, more likely, defending herself or her litter. The man stops his truck up the road and is now walking back toward her - pecker at attention you can be sure. Hearing the screams, he comes to a halt, looks, listens. As her screams - expressions not of fear but of the wish to kill - go on, permeating the air around them, he turns and slowly walks back to the truck, and is gone.
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Martin - reserved, subtle, ironic, sad (the very “profile” of a good writer, research has shown) - is dumbstruck by You: awed, puzzled, unsure, aroused.  After a prolonged on-again-off-again “dance” at the start, they reach a truce and strike a deal. In exchange for room and board, she will work for him – stuff like gardening and feeding livestock. But You has two conditions: that nothing physical will occur, and that no personal information is to be exchanged. You tells Martin around this point that she knows he is frighened of the circumstances but that she is not. She still refuses to tell him her name. Or her history. This makes Martin mental. But they do keep expanding the range of their conversations, things become bit-by-bit more natural around the house. Finally they agree that once a day, each may ask the other a single question about themselves. But nothing too personal, you understand.

Some films are plot-driven, others character-driven, and so on. Some films are driven by a relationship between two people, which I have previously written about in Open Spaces magazine. It’s as if the relationship becomes an entity “unto itself,” a singular character in the cast, which, then, will have three leads, in this case: Him, Her and It (for the “r” word). The lead players and the story of their relationship bring frequent sensations of freshness and surprise along the way here, as we watch an ever so slow opening of the couple's love. A quiet, deep affection gradually dawns over them, annealing the bond between them. The story moves with such grace, such specialness, that we forgive the fact that this union was entirely predictable from the beginning of the movie. This film is, after its fashion, both romantic and sentimental. Could a film be more different in its sensibilities from mainstream tastes? Does any other vehicle in the festival provide the same platform for watching how people’s character, their degrees of integrity and honesty, play out in a loving relationship? Grade: A-  (02/27/10)

Add: Ready for today's Kulture Kwiz? Here are the Kwestions: What still photographer is given an homage late in the film? What is the scene? And who are the subjects in the famous photo that the movie's principals simulate? Answers below.

We know that mainstream moviemakers are kept financially erect, so to speak, by trying to fulfill man’s desires for mayhem, sexual intercourse, spectacle, heroism and escape. (Wealth goes without saying.) These desiderata are simply not on display in this film, except for small sex scenes. To be refreshed by the nourishment of grace and amused by the unpredictability of life: these are definitely not experiences that mainstream audiences are seeking . What will the U.S. gross be on Nothing Personal? If it gets a domestic distributor, my guess is somewhere around $4M to $10M (domestic theater annual gross revenues). For 2009, here are selected low grossing films: A Serious Man ($9 M); Away We Go ($9 M); Young Victoria ($10 M); An Education ($11.5 M); and The Hurt Locker (12.7 M). Mayhem, intercourse and escape through fantasy? That’s where the big bucks are. Look at these numbers, for 2009: Avatar ($708 M); Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ($402 M); Harry Potter and the Halfblood Prince ($302 M); Twilight Saga: New Moon ($296 M); Up ($293 M); and, surprise, surprise, in 6th place (among 150 films listed), it's The Hangover ($277 M). Wow, Hangover, my favorite comedy of the year.

Now, the answers to today's Kulture Kwiz Kwestions: Annie Leibovitz is the photographer. She was doing a shoot for "Rolling Stone." Her subjects were John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It's their iconic embrace, shot from above, with a naked John, curled into a fetal position, cuddling with Yoko as they lie together on a carpetted floor. It's December 8, 1980, and Lennon will be shot dead five hours after this photo was taken. In the film it is Martin's sheet-wrapped body that a nude You embraces, also shot from above.

OCTOBER COUNTRY (Michael Palmieri & Donal Mosher, US, 2009, 83 m.). Donal Mosher (the co-director) hails from a poor family in rural upstate New York that is hard to describe without getting stuck amidst clichés, so I’ll plunge right in with ‘dysfunctional,’ ‘troubled,’ ‘disturbed,’ ‘pathological,’ ‘unstable,’ ‘violent’ ‘irresponsible,’ and 'unpredictable,' The family can also be compassionate and supportive in their manner.

Mosher eventually moved to Portland, where he has hooked up with Michael Palmieri to make this film. (They are co-directors, co-writers, and co-musical score writers. Palmieri was DP and editor.) Well, I’m getting weary, this is my last review to write up, and I'm going to be lazy and let Michael Palmieri have a chance to speak on behalf of his collaborator, Donal Mosher, and their film…

“… an American family struggling for stability while haunted by the ghosts of war, teen pregnancy, foster care and child abuse. With rarely seen intimacy, sensitivity and respect, this vibrant documentary examines the forces that unsettle the working poor and the violence that lurks beneath the surface of American life.”  ---- Michael Palmieri 

Check it out. See for yourself if Palmieri’s right. October Country won the Grand Jury Prize for Best US Documentary Feature at the AFI/Discovery Channel “Silverdocs Festival” in Silver Springs MD, last June.  Grade: B  (02/17/10).

Add: I appreciate the courage of this family to let us peer into their lives, and the legitimate desire of the filmmakers to create a compassionate film, which I think they have done. At the same time, I have been curious for years about the motives of advocates of what I call 'radical self-disclosure" in media sources. What purposes does this self-revelatory conduct serve? What are the consequences, positive and negative? Do we - individually or collectively - benefit from public airing of what much of the world considers private, personal business?

I felt I learned too much about these people. I wonder if they would be better off if they didn't present themselves to the world in this socially naked manner. I think the media and the public should protect the privacy and other interests of others at times when the person in question cannot exercise sufficient judgment to act in their own interests.

PASSENGER SIDE (Mat Bissonnette, Canada, 2009, 85 m). I don’t want you to get me wrong, so I’ll acknowledge right up front that this is not a good movie. I cannot recommend it to general audiences, which means that in my system the highest grade I can give it is a C+.  Nevertheless, I think this is a “useful” film, because, for me at least, it sparks some thoughts about the newest film genre, one that has emerged during the 2000s, so-called “Mumblecore” films.

In this film little of any real consequence occurs. It’s all pretty much just talk. Nothing happens. This is your stock mumblecore narrative arc, rivaled only by My Dinner with Andre and a lot of French films. (For that matter, Andre, while it was a U.S. production, is really a French film too, since it was directed by Louis Malle.) From the beginning, French filmmakers have taken the term “talkies” too literally.

The skeletal version of the story is this: Basically we spend the day riding around the far reaches of L.A. with Michael (Adam Scott, who’s in his mid-30s), at the wheel of his beat up old Beamer, and, in the passenger seat (you're catching on), his recently cleaned & sobered younger brother Tobey (Canadian actor Joel Bissonnette; you guessed it, you sly dog, you, he’s the writer/director’s brother. This may help explain how an actor of his limited ability got a major supporting role here. I hope he came cheap.)

It’s Michael’s birthday and he has a date lined up, when Tobey, a first rank schlemiel, calls to beg Michael to spend the day instead chauffeuring him around to run errands, because Tobey’s car is on the fritz. Grudgingly, Michael agrees. He is the ur-Big Brother. Treats his kid brother shabbily, and we don’t know at this point if there's some comprehensible reason. Full of superiority and disdain, razor sharp and quick on the verbal draw, infused with the stench of cleverness and hip, brimming with undischarged, authoritative but largely unwanted advice for Tobey, maestro of the last word. (In phone conversations with his girlfriend and his mother, we can see that he doesn’t act a whole lot differently toward them.)

As they ride from place to place, stopping every so often for Tobey to have a brief exchange with someone, it looks more than a little like he’s doing some sort of drug related business today. It doesn’t take long for these two jokers to begin making familiar emotional stops, pushing buttons that open up old, unfinished business, each tormenting the other and feeling the pleasure of watching his opponent squirm and wince after landing a good blow. (Are you dizzy yet from mixed metaphors?)

And so it goes (thank you, K. Vonnegut, Jr., for that memorable little sentence). Michael, the flip aggressor, the word merchant, dancing around like Ali, earns more points here, but Tobey trudges on, down but never out, making a few decent jabs himself before day’s end. Asymmetrical warfare. Brothers will be brothers. He doesn’t act stoned, sedated, or like he's having the nods. Michael is a writer. Tobey, when not riding the Big Horse, does…hhmmmm...what does Tobey do all day?  Answering this question must have posed a problem for Tobey too, for he has - as everybody now finds out, Michael included - already returned to his old job as a full time junkie.

The chatter goes on, with escalating anger on both sides following Tobey’s revelation. Michael goes postal about Tobey’s lying, dependency, irresponsibility and lack of willpower. Tobey ’s furious with Michael for being hypercritical and unloving, unaccepting, unforgiving. Stay tuned for the resolution of this verbal boxing match if you like, but I’m leaving.  (Actually there’s much more to be said, but I will save it for a separate essay on mumblecore.)

Before I go, though, I do owe you a few comments now about this genre: see the next section. Grades: C+ (general audiences); B (for those interested in mumblecore films) (02/19/10).

Add: As best I could tell, no cigarettes were harmed, smoked or seen laying about in this film. If true, that’s pretty amazing in a movie obviously pitched to people in the demographic most likely to smoke. Now that's Indie assertiveness at its best. Don't sell out, even if you need the money.

Mumblecore (Mumbling in the Dark)

By this term I mean the large batch of very recent films - 43 are listed on the IMBd under ‘mumblecore,’ none before 2002 - that feature generally idle post-college adults who traipse around the countryside sponging off those of their friends who actually work for a living or are trust fund kids. These films are low budget, “indie” productions that often use nonactors (sometimes together with a few professionals). Mumblecore is by-and-large an East Coast phenomenon, and, while not confined to a particular locale, Brooklyn is its epicenter, especially Brooklyn Heights and its surrounds, where many 20-somethings - the talented and untalented alike - flock these days.

By consensus (whose?), the first film framing this genre is said to be Andrew Bujalski's 2002 movie, Funny Ha Ha, which I haven’t seen. I have seen his second mumbler, Mutual Appreciation (2005), as well as several other films in the genre: High Life (2005); The Puffy Chair (2005); Dance Party, USA (2006); Old Joy (2006); Quiet City (2007); and Baghead (2008).

These people are laid back, and how. They like to drink but not that much, talk (mumble), talk some more (mumble), have casual sex - though in many instances they talk (mumble) more about sex and relationships than they actually practice them. Nobody goes anywhere or does very much. They aren’t exactly slackers in the usual sense in which that term is used: 'educated young adults characterized by cynicism and apathy' (Free On-Line Dictionary).

Yes, the mumblers have been to college, and some possess graduate degrees. Yet many appear to be drifting when we meet them. Apathy may be too strong a descriptor in most cases. It's a more subtle malaise; a mild but persistent lethargy; even demoralization, perhaps, in some instances. They generally seem sort of content, or at least not too troubled, with their existence. They don’t seem cynical or ironic. You've got to be engaged in something, or at least think about something important, to work up a good case of cynicism. They seem to be striving for some simple, unsophisticated way of living, without the nuisance of having to go off to a commune or a monastic cloister. And they are incredibly self absorbed.

So there are several interconnected factors that may shape these people, their values and the films they make about themselves and their friends. Part of this may be to turn one's back on social or political issues to the point that one no longer gets worked up when bad things happen in the world. There’s no passion for such matters, no patience to learn the facts, thus no informed, "evidence-based" POV to give substance to irony or cynicism. I think that Passenger Side heralds a different (L.A.) version of mumblecore. But that’s a subject for the essay I have yet to write.

POLICE, ADJECTIVE (Politist, adj.) (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 2009, 115 m).  At times during this unusual cop movie, especially early in the film, the pace is so slow that you begin to wonder if you’ve accidentally slipped into a screening of a Tsai Ming-liang film. This “concept” film is a little heavy, pretty didactic. It revives the question of what should be the preemptive standard for human behavior: morality or law? The particulars of the plot surround the issue of whether marijuana use (or, in this case, hashish) should be treated as a criminal act.  The debate plays out between a tough though unctuous senior police supervisor (he’s for law and order, of course) and the protagonist, Cristi, an unassuming, quietly idealistic younger cop (he’s for not ruining the lives of non-violent teens by convicting them of minor drug "crimes" of simple drug possession and use). Cristi is a family man who is extremely thorough in his work. His scrupulosity also gets him into trouble, for Cristi won’t let go of an issue, even at his own peril, if he feels that his principles are at stake.

Unlike the farcical comdram, 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), Porumboiu’s last film to screen here, Police is a somber film, devoid of humor. It is a pertinent film, though, despite its pace and rough edges, because, if Romanian officialdom buys into the harsh punishment line of thinking about personal cannabis use depicted in this film, then their policy people are as stupid as U.S. drug policy makers. Our “War on Drugs” has squandered billions and billions of dollars over the past 35 years to subsidize law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and anti-drug military actions in several developing nations, with minimal if any return on that investment. These misappropriations have preempted adequate funding for an expanded treatment system, expanding incarceration instead while snubbing rehabilitation (nearly every drug treatment program in the country has waiting lists). Court diversion of drug users into supervised rehab avoids the poisonous prison environment for non-violent and non-dealing minor drug offenders, not to mention saving the staggering sums of taxpayer money required to pay for prison beds and "services." Rehab enhances the likelihood of success for addicts pursuing employment, education and improved interpersonal relations.

These are not new issues in the US. There is now ongoing debate among health professionals and among law enforcement officials about the failures and resource burdens of our War on Drugs. However, most legislators (federal and in most states) and public leaders, even if they understand the logic of decriminalization, remain fearful of political fallout that could hurt them if they endorsed such a policy ("Soft on crime," "Soft on drugs.").  But to see this subject brought up in the film as if it is new issue suggests that the Romanians are still working through the deep, fundamental changes that have occurred in their governance since 1990.  Under the former Communist regime, as in most other fascist states, “law” was used as the preemptive force for coercing behavior, and that meant a severe breech of individual liberties. The state became entirely amoral in “applying” the law (e.g., imprisonment and torture for political dissidents, if not exile or death). So it is not difficult to understand the skepticism that Cristi and others might have for the rule of law, and the special need they may feel (not that we all shouldn't feel such a need) to advocate for a more humane approach to solving civil and minor criminal problems. (In Romanian) Grade: B (02/08/10).

A PROPHET (Un prophète) (Jacques Audiard, France/Italy, 2009, 150 m).  Audiard makes riveting films with complex male protagonists – one might call them antiheros but I find that term too simplistic.  Think of these 3 gems from Audiard: A Self-Made Hero (1996), Read My Lips (2001) and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005).  The first two were stupendous. Skipped was mildly disappointing for me, as is Prophet. I think his first 2 films set me up to expect that Audiard would never make anything less than an “A” film.

This prison flick features a coming-of-age subtext about an imprisoned Islamic young man (Malik) who falls under the sway of members of a Corsican gang and their older leader. Malik happens to be half Corsican himself and speaks their language. In the event, he turns gang member and trained killer. Oh, Yes. There’s a splendid enactment of murder by razorblade, spraying copious, pulsatile spurts of arterial blood across a room in a dramatic arc. I’m no longer as thrilled by such scenes as I was in my Sam Peckinpah days. Unfortunately I slept for about 45 minutes during middle of the film. Others who saw it, and a number of critics as I understand it, have rated this film quite highly. (In French, Arabic and Corsican)  Grade: NG (slept for 45 minutes in middle of film) (02/01/10).

THE PROTECTOR (Protektor) (Marek Najbrt, Czech Republic/Germany, 2009, 98 m). The Czechs continue to use theatrical films to re-experience and work through residual national feelings lingering since the traumas of WW II. Here we are in Prague, in the years 1938 through 1942. The Nazi occupation is in full flower by '42. Emil Vrbata (Marek Daniel) is a radio actor and announcer. His wife, the glamorous Hana Vrbatová (Jana Plodková), is a popular movie actress (with a blonde wig on, she looks like Jean Harlow). But now, because of her Jewish roots - long known by the public and undeniable - she’s dismissed from the film studio, bored and frightened.  When things reach such a point for her, she always turns to booze and men. Emil is also frightened for her welfare.

The radio station needs to replace Franta, its most important celebrity commentator, because he refuses to cave to the Nazi media official now directing the station’s policies and staff. (In fact Franta is a resistance leader.)  Emil is asked to take the job. He grudgingly acquiesces to a deal in which he will appear to be pro-German on the air, in return for a pledge from the German station official to aid Emil in protecting Hana.

The movie’s title points to a triple entendre. Presence of the German occupying force is justified as "protecting" the Czech state and its citizens (officially, the Nazis name the area the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia,” predating the postwar creation of Czechoslovakia by that name. The Germans are protecting Emil, because his burgeoning celebrity helps put the Germans in a favorable light. And Emil, with help, is protecting Hana, who seems unable and perhaps unwilling to protect herself.

There is nothing exceptional about the technical aspects of the production. The narrative is straightforward, the photography appropriately a bit rough.  Tension fluctuates but is not very well sustained through the film. Emil’s Faustian arrangement with the Germans is precarious at best; you know things won’t work out well in the end. Events are grimly but very effectively foreshadowed by frequent, short intercut scenes of a procession of Jews in overcoats carrying lots of luggage, accompanied by German soldiers as they march toward the train station. (In Czech) Grade: B (02/15/10).

REPORTER (Eric Daniel Metzgar, US, 2009, 92 m).

Arousing Compassion: Nicholas Kristof at Work in the World (alternative title)

"Compassion is an unstable emotion” --- Susan Sontag (quoted in the film).

The theme that permeates this film about New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is his conviction that sustained public compassion is the only force likely to make a lasting difference for the victims of genocide and other crimes against humanity. A more accurate and informative title for this film would be the one I have suggested above.

Wanderlust has defined Kristof’s journalistic career. For us to get to know him, we must, therefore, scurry along with the film crew trying to keep up as the peripatetic Mr. Kristof courses through the world. You find out fast that this trim 50 year old is quite fit: he can schlep his own luggage and equipment speedily through all sorts of steamy backwater outposts, and all the while his dress shirts still look freshly pressed. He has lived on 4 continents, reported on locales in 6, visited over 140 countries and all 50 states. Along the way he has survived a difficult bout of malaria and a plane crash in Africa, among other misadventures.

Kristof’s editor at the NY Times says, “(Nick’s) job is to go to the places in the world where he feels he must be (in order) to write.” This mission has taken him to hotspots where human suffering is writ large: Central Africa, Afghanistan, Congo (where, Kristof tells us, there are 22 separate militias fighting each other in an impossible web of civil wars), and Darfur (he’s visited there at least 10 times and took his second Pulitzer in 2006 for reporting on that deeply troubled region).

Through his twice-weekly column, Kristof serves as a moral compass and fair witness to preventable atrocities in the world. He doubts that political and economic support, and limited military peacekeeping deployments - like those by the U.N. and the African Union - can fix such problems. His interest is in mobilizing broad based, persistent compassion among a large segment of the population of Western nations, which he believes can bring about change..

I found it absolutely stunning that, in the service of his ambitious vision, Kristof actually follows the research literature on studies of compassion by social scientists. (Is he the first Op-Ed journalist ever to turn to academia for guidance?)  In the film, he shares several findings he thinks are highly relevant to his mission. A few things we all believe to be true have, in fact, been proven so by some studies. For one, statistics turn people off. We are more emotionally affected by the story of one particular individual or family or village than by a clutch of staggering facts and figures. Research supports the old saw that “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” And so Kristof is ever on the lookout for personal stories.

He then cites a study that gives a more microscopic view of this phenomenon.  In this study, normal adult subjects were shown two photos taken in the same locale, e.g., a refugee camp. It is obvious that conditions are equally bad for the people in both pictures. One photo shows just a single person. The other shows 2 or more people. Subjects are more emotionally responsive to the photo depicting 1 victim than to photos showing 2 or more.

What an amazing finding, Kristof says, that just the difference in focus on 1 versus 2 victims affects compassionate responses. Social scientists refer to this effect as “psychic numbing” – suffering that extends beyond a single individual is sufficiently distressing to observers that they withdraw emotionally, i.e., become emotionally numb, to ward off this distress. But in so doing, positive and altruistic feelings, including compassion, are also attenuated.

Kristof sees such phenomena as the greatest challenge to people like himself who want to evoke more widespread concern for displaced, traumatized, sickly, starving and wounded victims of mass atrocities.  Grades: Humanitarian & Geopolitical importance: A; Film production values: B; Overall: A - (02/15/10).

Add: Kristof grew up on a farm in Yamhill County, Oregon, among sheep and a cherry orchard. He graduated from Harvard College, earned a law degree at Oxford, and studied Arabic in Egypt for a year (1983-84).  He has worked for the Times since 1984 and began his twice weekly column in 2001. His first Pulitzer was jointly awarded to him and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, in 1990, for their collaborative reports on The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. It was the first Pulitzer in journalism awarded to a married couple. (Ms. WuDunn can be seen briefly in the latter part of the film.)

THE REVERSE (Rewers) (Borys Lankosz, Poland, 2009, 99 m). Like any other serious filmgoers, who have witnessed a thousand deaths and the agonies of many more, we find ourselves once again living on the edge, this time in the dark clutches of the Soviet Union. It's the 1950s, in Warsaw. [The use of B & W stock was a good call for these scenes.]

The film pivots around its central character, Sabina, played by the unassuming, egret-like Agata Buzek. Sabina is the classic bereft, exploited victim of a swinish, conniving man who takes advantage of her bottled up passions. Bone thin, pale, reserved, shy, her face partly hidden behind the bars of her severe black horned rims. Yes, that’s Sabina. At 30 she’s on the threshold of spinsterhood, toiling away in the office of a publishing house, where her obnoxious boss Barski (Bronislaw Wroclawski) seriously hits on her. That’s her love life during a good week.

The consensus shared by Mom and Grandma, the gang with whom Sabina lives, is that it’s high time for her to make a grandkid or two. For her part, Sabina, who has been turning thumbs down on the men Mom hauls in for family suppers, feels that she’s at the bottom of the family power chain, too timid to insist on having anything go her way. Like a hothouse flower, she wilts easily when the emotional atmosphere heats up.The older women are dismissive of her desire to marry someone she loves. She's a prisoner of two generations of mothers. Two old pros. Two tough survivors of the hellish cauldon that we sterilely call WW II. (Mother is at least somewhat sympathetic, though she can be plenty pushy.)

Speaking of those two scalawags, Mom is now spending every spare minute feverishly trying to arrange for more male guests to visit for dinner and, she hopes, induce a tingle, some twinge of romance. Grandma is upstairs practicing her most offensive gestures and phrases for destabilizing everyone at dinner that evening. She’s not going to live that much longer, she believes, so from now on, she's going to do as she pleases (as she has always done).

And then it happens. Tonight's dinner guest is Bronislaw Falski (Marcin Dorocinski), He's a hunk: handsome, strong as an ox, popular, and no fool. Bad combination, unless he's on your side. He's a con man, a master thief, and an extraordinary chef. He plans to cater to all three of these women tonight, whatever that may mean. He thinks the young shiksa might be amused and open up to him. Thus begins a ludicrous affair based mainly on the repressed Sabina's unleashing of her vast libidinal reserves.

Before long, as all discerning viewers knew he would, Brony, feeling asphyxiated by togetherness, splits, abandoning an obviously pregnant Sabina in the hour of her greatest need. Then comes 'the reverse,' or, more accurately, the (plural) reverses. A meek Sabina turns boldly assertive. Pregnancy obviously becomes her. Mom and Grandma do an about face too, dusting off old Resistance skills they hadn't used since the Warsaw Uprising to stick up for Sabina.

We get intercuts along the way in this film - only a few at first, more later on - scenes in color, always of an old woman trudging along at a large airport. At first we haven't a clue about her identity, but it gradually becomes clear that these are flashforwards of Sabina grown old. She walks slowly. Lackluster trenchcoat. Cane? I think. Why is she here? Where has the story been, and where is it headed now? At about this point the present day scene abruptly ends and we land in the 1950s once more. So it's possible that Sabina turned out just fine, living on her own terms, I guess. Brony has been out of the picture for some time. One can only fantasize about Barski, hoping that his sexual bullying will lead to some nasty punishment. (In Polish) Grade B (02/28/10).

Add: Agata Buzek is the daughter of Jerzy Buzek, a former Prime Minister of Poland (1997 - 2001). In 2009, he was elected to be the new President of the European Parliament.

SHAMELESS (Nestyda) (Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic, 2008, 88 m). Jan Hrebejk is capable of fine filmmaking. His 2000 com/dram Divided We Fall is one of my favorite films of the decade, and Beauty in Trouble (2006) is also good. But you can’t win ‘em all. Pupendo (2003) wasn’t that great, despite having a brilliant cast. Shameless is a domestic drama that is dreary in comparison to these earlier films of his. One clichéd bit after another. The affair. The troubles at work. The marital breakup: none of it is original or clever. Yawn. I left quite early. (On my way out, I noticed Paul Sher fast asleep. Now and then we agree on a film.) If I’d stayed, and the film had continued along in the same vein, I would have graded it a “C”. (In Czech & Slovak) Grade: NG (I left the film after 25 minutes) (02/17/10).

Add: Perhaps I am being overly harsh in saying there was nothing original here. I initially forgot one scene in particular that I did see. I don't know if it's entirely without precedent, but it doesn't happen often during the obligatory sex scenes of a movie that the woman asks the man if he would like her to piss on him. According to Marty Kinsella, who knows about these things, this bit of tenderness is known as a "golden shower." Where would this writer be without benefit of the collective knowledge of the PIFF Silver Screeners?

THE SHOCK DOCTRINE (Mat Whitecross & Michael Winterbottom, UK, 2009, 82 m). Here's an alternative title for this documentary adaptation of Naomi Klein's bestselling exposé, "The Shock Doctrine: Rise of Disaster Capitalism":

The Shock Doctrine: A Cabal of Chicago Economists Wants to Hijack the World (alternative title)

In this absorbing film, Naomi Klein herself presides over the telling of her book length journalistic tour de force about economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman's opportunistic notions on how to reap huge profits by taking advantage of public disorientation and anxiety in the wake of massive crises that affect whole nations or regions (e.g., war, famine, financial meltdown, and natural disasters). Any of these conditions does leave masses of people in states of individual and collective shock, psychic paralysis. Any such disaster will also require massive resources to stabilize and rebuild a nation, and, especially, its economy. Who in their right mind wants to front the costs of such aid projects without getting something in return?

Friedman and his colleagues, beginning over a half century ago, came to perceive such disasters or crises as golden opportunities for change that would assure major investors of handsome and stable returns. If you follow the machinations of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, multinational corporations and the economically most powerful nations ("the usual suspects"), you know the drill (a kind of "shock therapy" in Ms. Klein's view).

First, radically reduce government spending and services, except for law enforcement and the military. Law and order must be maintained and assured, to attract foreign capital investments. To the extent possible, privatize government run businesses and activities (e.g., telecommunications and other utilities, energy, and so on, including the comodification of traditionally free resources like water). Keep up payments on foreign debt obligations. Tolerate the resulting upturn in unemployment and declines in health care and education (assuring citizens that these tough times will pass, once "belt-tightening" efforts bring about renewed economic vigor). If this recipe is followed, some old foreign debt may be forgiven by the Big Dogs, who will also probably give the green light for new loans and renewed foreign investment, even in the short term.

According to Ms. Klein's "Shock Doctrine" website (see link below), this form of economic shock therapy has been applied by the U.S. and its financial partners and cronies in a number of settings, including Pinochet’s coup in Chile (1973); the Falklands War (1982); the Tiananmen Square Massacre (1989); the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991); the Asian financial crisis (1997); and Hurricane Mitch, which caused historic flooding in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua (1998).

Naomi Klein, a native of Montreal, turns 40 in a couple of months. A professional journalist, she interned with the Toronto "Globe and Mail," briefly edited a political magazine, and has since written for "The Nation" and "The Guardian," among other publications. Known as a feminist activist, in recent years her focus has been on the global economy and, especially, its effects on women. Whether you agree with her or not, everyone should consider reading "Shock Doctrine."  If you have ADHD and can't read serious stuff easily, then see this movie, which my partner says epitomizes the book quite nicely, though with far less detail. (I haven't read the book either).

This film was not made to the high production values. It all seems a bit slap dash to me. I would have preferred that the film be longer (it's only 82 minutes as it stands), in order to further draw out and illustrate the issues Ms. Klein raises. Nonetheless, the movie deserves a good grade for the material it delivers. For more on the book, visit this website: http://www.naomiklein.org/shock-doctrine . Grade: B+  (02/20/10).

Add: With British filmmaking fortunes wheezing gamely along as usual, the prolific Michael Winterbottom, at 49, cuts against the grain. He is an extremely busy filmmaker indeed.  Eleven of his pictures have been released in the last decade, another has just been completed, and he has 2 or 3 in pre-production. No wonder his ex-wife refers to him as a workaholic who would periodically disappear in pursuit of some new film idea (a different kind of "lost weekend"). 

Winterbottom always seems intent upon expanding the variety of his productions: from narrative domestic dramas, to the world of pop music, to docudramas about geopolitical hotspots, now to Shock Doctrine, his first full documentary. The docudramas are: Welcome to Sarajevo (on Bosnia, 1997); In This World (on Afghan refugees, 2002);  Road to Guantánamo (a film with documentary segments about three British Muslims held at Gitmo for 2 years, 2006); and A Mighty Heart (the Daniel Pearl story, 2007).[the first two of these films are quite good; I have not seen the latter two.] One reason for Winterbottom's productivity is his co-director here, Mat Whitecross.  They also co-directed Gitmo, and Whitecross has had key roles, usually as editor, on several of Winterbottom's other film projects.

THE SICILIAN GIRL (La siciliana ribelle) (Marco Amenta, Italy/France, 2009, 115 m). This docudrama is the second film that director Marco Amenta, a native of Palermo, has made about the real events in 1992 that took place when a teenage girl, 17 year old Rita Atria (Veronica D’Agostino), part of an influential Mafia family, came forward to testify against the family, thereby breaking the most important commandment in the Cosa Nostra manual: Omertà, the code of silence: never talk about the family to outsiders. Loyalty to the family is everything. The wages of violating these tenets is death.

Rita Atria had begun keeping diaries at age 11. Although she idolized her father, her detailed record of the comings and goings of people at the Atria house would eventually become part of the evidence implicating her father and other family members in various crimes. Besides Ms. Atria, the other hero in this story was Judge Paolo Borsellino (Gérard Jugnot), the first judicial officer ever to resist intimidation by the Cosa Nostra in a case like this. Borsellino was assassinated later in 1992. According to the film, Italian law says that if a witness who has offered material evidence in a capital trial dies, the evidence stands as valid and unchallengable by the court.

This law is no doubt a key factor influencing Rita. Another may be the realization that she can never live a normal life again. She will be forced to drift, incognito, always driven by the imperative of evading detection, kidnapping and execution by the Cosa Nostra. She can't go home again for the same reason. There's a new man on the scene who idolizes her. But she can't have him either. Is there anything or anyone left for her? (In Italian)  Grade: B+ (02/27/10).

Add: This particular case was only one of several at the time in which Mafiosi came forward to snitch. Since the early 90s, inside informants have emerged with increasing frequency. The first Amenta film about Rita Atria was a 1997 short (56 minute) documentary of the real events behind the story in Sicilian Girl. Its title is One Girl Against the Mafia, which I have not seen. 

SMALL CRIME (Mikro eglima) (Christos Georgiou, Greece/Cyprus/Germany, 2008, 85 m). After our gluttony of violence, pathos and talking heads, a binge ineluctably imposed by PIFF, this light, humorous little truffle is welcome. The movie is blessed with a pretty good physical comedian (Aris Servetalis) in the starring role as Leonidas, a bumbling cop, the sort of guy who might fall upstairs instead of down, a schlemiel and a schlimazel rolled into one. Servetalis’ comic style brings Jacques Tati (“Mr. Hulot”) to mind. Leonidas is a cop on a tiny Aegean island who is bored by the lack of action, until the town drunk, an ex-soccer star, is found dead on a cliffside above the sea. Did he fall while intoxicated, or was he pushed? In his clownish way, Leonidas plunges ahead to solve the mystery with great seriousness of purpose. (In Greek) Grade: B (02/16/10).

Add: Roger Noehren tells me that the island in the film Small Crime is Therasia (also spelled Thirasia), which used to be part of Santorini, in the Cyclades group, until it was forced to secede (Roger's quip) and become a separate island, severed from the larger portion of Santorini by the force of one of the largest earthquakes ever, in the middle of the second millenium BCE. In 2001 Therasia had a population of 268. Roger says that there's one scene in the film where you can see a row of houses on top of a cliff in the distance. They must be on Santorini, he says. Many thanks, Roger.

SONS OF CUBA (Andrew Lang, UK, 2009, 88 m). Absorbing documentary about the Cuban developmental boxing program. International amateur boxing is a sport that Cuba has excelled in for years, a source of great national pride, like the Cuban national baseball teams. Every province in the country, we learn in this film, has a boxing academy. Nine year old boys are selected to live in these residential academies, which combine regular schooling with an incredibly rigorous boxing training program.

The kids are awakened at 4 am for calisthenics. Meals are spartan (partly, I suspect, because of limited resources). The boys do learn techniques to add or shed weight rapidly. [Followers of boxing will know that participants are placed in "divisions" according to weight. Matches always pit fighters in the same division. Just prior to any match, contenders must "weigh in" to prove they are not over the limit for their division.] After classroom work, it’s hit the gym for more exercise, speed, footwork and strength training. There are competitive matches all the time, as well. 

As with everything in Cuba, there is insufficient money to provide decent equipment for the Academy. I noticed that instead of the heavy bag used by older Cubans and professional fighters for developing punching strength, the Academy must use a jerrybuilt contraption consisting of two old truck tires attached to the ceiling with thin cables. The entire academy building is decrepit, inside and out. The place screams for better maintenance and appointments.

This film is very nicely photographed and edited, and the director, Andrew Lang, has succeeded in making the boys feel sufficiently at ease to speak quite freely and intelligently for themselves about their experiences and attitudes toward the program. Looks suspiciously like free speech. (In Spanish) Grade: B+ (02/20/10).

Add: The Wide Angle series on PBS did a film on the same academy and some of the same boys two years earlier, entitled Victory is Your Duty, which I have not seen. Here are two links for that film: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/episodes/victory-is-your-duty/where-are-they-now/5355/ , and http://www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/tag/yosvani-bonachea/

The dark side: brain damage? We’ve known for years that professional fighters not uncommonly develop irreversible brain damage from the cumulative effects of repeated head trauma in the ring over the course of a long career. An undetermined proportion of such fighters go on to develop dementia, called dementia pugilistica, often with onset well before their 70s, the time when the incidence of dementia in non-pugilists starts to rise. Professional boxing champions who have developed dementia pugilistica include Wilfred Benitez, Billy Conn, Emile Griffith, Floyd Patterson, Willie Pep, and Sugar Ray Robinson). Less often, a boxer will develop Parkinson’s disease, with or without associated or coincident dementia (like Muhammad Ali, though nobody wants to talk publicly about his obvious dementia).

Very recently, studies have shown that U. S. professional football players are also at risk for permanent cognitive deficits as a result of the cumulative effects of 100s or even 1000s of blows to the head over the course of careers that may have begun as early as age 5 in the “Pop Warner” kids’ football program.

I worry that this could become a serious problem for many of these Cuban child boxers over time. In the film, twice during practices, we get a hint about such possibilities. In one practice a boy sustains a troublesome headache that stays with him. In a practice match, another boy complains afterward that his opponent seriously head butted him in the ring, and he’s got a bleeding facial laceration to show for it.

SWEETGRASS  (Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, US/France/UK, 2009, 105 m). AMONG MY TOP 5 PIFF FILMS!  SPOILER ALERT!  OK, first, let’s get this straight: the stars of this film are sheep. Write it down. It's important. The humans get very little attention (but none were killed or injured by the sheep in making this documentary). We get only sheep and sheep dialog for the first 15 minutes. Humans emerge and start to make a few sounds at 18 minutes, and the first audible verbal exchange occurs 30 minutes into the movie.

This remarkable film, shot over two years (2001-2003), records the final late spring sheep drive up into the high country, to the alpine meadows of the Beartooth Range in Montana, for summer grazing.  Environmental concerns are at last having some impact on the overuse of these delicate grassy areas. At the end of the film we see the same sheep headed back down the mountain to livestock pens next to the railroad, the last hurrah before their trip to the slaughterhouse.

If you don’t know anything about this special world, here’s your chance for enlightenment. The sheep – huge numbers of them – issue a surprising variety of bleat sounds. The herders are good at imitating some of these and have invented others for special situations (like birthing, to calm the mother). The opening scenes - of sheep, of course - star one in particular, up close and personal. After chewing awhile and gazing into the middle distance, this particular sheep appears to notice the camera for the first time, stops chewing and bleating, stares directly into the lens (right at you), head ever so slightly cocked to one side, silent, curious, transfixed.

We go into a large barn that is a combination birthing facility and newborn nursery. Little pens each house a single ewe and her litter. We see how assisted births and newborn feedings are managed. We also see litter swaps (my term). If a litter consists of only a single live lamb, one or more others will be taken from mother(s) with large litters and placed permanently with the mother of the small litter. This equalizes opportunities for adequate early feeding and attention. And get this: the skin stripped from a stillborn lamb in the tiny litter may be pulled over the lamb that is being transferred, so the mother receiving the surrogate newborn will accept it (pulling the hide on makes you think of donning long underwear or stuffing sausage skins).

At some point there’s a massive sheep parade down the main street of a small town. Sheep are everywhere, out to the horizon in one scene, closely packed together, noisy. Maybe because today is Sunday, or maybe because I am amused by the metaphor, my mental association to these scenes is crowds of people packed into the Piazza San Pietro at the Vatican to see the Pope.

We’re probably watching the final passing of the domestic sheep industry, crowded out by the unceasing stampede of the beef cartels, cheaper wool from abroad, and increasing emphasis on environmental protection. At the end of the final drive, one herder asks an older man what he's going to do next. There's a long, long pause before this gent slowly says he doesn't know, he'll think about it in 3 months. For some, this is bittersweet grass. Grade: A  (02/13/10).

Add: This film was shot near the town of Big Timber, north of Yellowstone at the foot of the Beartooths (Bearteeth?), in south central Montana. This is Federal land, part of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, although for many years sheep ranchers had been granted access to the high alpine meadows there for summer grazing. This practice was stopped by the government in 2003 because of damage from overgrazing. (My partner and resident environmentalist says that sheep actually eat grasses down to the roots, stunting or killing the plants, which cattle do not do. Politically, I'm sure, it is also easier for the feds to push sheep ranchers around than cattle ranchers, thanks to the huge Washington influence of the beef industry.

Here’s a “Cowboy joke” from the film, told by one herder to 3 or 4 others (I've tried to capture the vernacular as best I could):

Man’s gettin his internal organs reoutfitted at the used organ shop, and now it’s time to pick out another brain for himself. You gotta buy everything.
 
Clerk says, “Well, at the low end, we can sell you a brain that belonged to a lawyer – you’ll do pretty well with this one.” Man says, “How much”? Clerk
says, “10 thousand. Now the next one here was a banker’s brain. You’ll make a lotta money with this one. It’s 20 thousand.”

Man says, “How ‘bout that big shiny one up there on the top shelf”? Clerk says, “Well, that’s the best brain we’ve got in the house right now.  It’s 1 million.”

Man says, “Why so much?” “Well,” says the clerk, “It was a Cowboy’s brain. It ain’t never been used.”

TERRIBLY HAPPY (Frygtelig lykkelig)  (Henrik Ruben Genz, Denmark, 2008, 95 m).  SPOILER ALERT! At the beginning, as Bruce Silverman pointed out to me, you think this film will follow the tired Western formula of “good guy comes into a corrupt town to take over as Marshall and restore law and order.” While that in a way describes the skeletal outline of this film's plot, after the opening scenes things become curiouser and curiouser, in a manner not seen in Hollywood Westerns. In fact the new Marshall, Robert (Jakob Cedergren), was a good, reliable cop in Copenhagen until he developed an unspecified psychiatric illness, from which he appears to have recovered.

Declared fit for duty, he's been sent to the boonies temporarily, to prove he's able to work again. The small, isolated boonie where this drama unfolds is a tiny town called Skarrild, on the German border in South Jutland, the southernmost part of Denmark. It's flat, monotonous countryside. Kansas meets west Texas.

A narrator tells us right up front that this town is strange: it’s got a big bog nearby where, according to legend and current beliefs of the townsfolk, lots of people and other things have been disposed of over the centuries, right up to the present.  The peculiar thing is that the local citizens seem not to worry about these ostensibly menacing circumstances, as if having people disappear (like the former Marshall did recently) is just something to accept and keep secret from probing outsiders. Why?  

A fresh love triangle opens thing up and moves us toward answers.. The Marshall, believe it or not, is a player in this triangle, and that causes quite a hiss-tizzy, especially among the regular drinking crew at the town's saloon. Some serious tectonic fissures open up and the town’s secrets gradually and obliquely bubble forth like firey lava.

This nail biter gains traction from a screenplay in which you repeatedly feel surprised by the next scene or sequence.  The narrative is unpredictable in the best sense. After awhile you have no idea what will happen next and where it will all end. The suspense is aided by the photography: lots of briefly held closeups. It works, creating a sense of breathlessness for this viewer that harmonizes with the rapid emotional pace of events for the Marshall. There’s also just enough drollery to leaven the density of the plot. (In Danish)  Grade: B+  (02/03/10).

Add: A number of reviewers find this film akin to some Coen Brothers[' movies, especially Fargo. See what you think.

A TOWN CALLED PANIC  (Panique au village) (Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar, Belgium/Luxembourg/France, 2009, 75m). SPOILER ALERT! I love many short animated films.  But I am almost always disappointed by animated feature-length films. Reason: with only occasional exceptions, animated features fizzle after about the first 30 to 45 minutes. Film critic Shawn Levy has never met a Pixar film that he didn't like. I've never seen one I did like. A number of them start out promising and fun. Often there are quite imaginative characters, background visuals and conceits. And then, after a while, they die, never to be resurrected.  

Maybe the filmmakers run out of material or, in some cases, money, or they let a clever plot devolve into some clichéd climax and denouement, or the action just becomes repetitive, i.e., the sight gags get recycled too often (yawn); the superficiality of the characters begins to wear (zzzz). Better writing and better editing might have prevented these problems. Kids may like seeing favorite early gags come back later in the film. It may recapture for them the joy or surprise that they felt early on. I don’t think it works that way for adults, at least not this one. As for Pixar films, the kids side with Shawn Levy. Hands down.

Which brings us - at long last - to the picture at hand. A fizzling narrative arc (if there is any arc at all) is a significant problem in Town Called Panic. The film is absolutely hilarious for the first 30 to 40 minutes. After that the chase scenes and other sequences from the first part of the film are recycled, with only slight variations.  It's a shame.  If this had been done as a "long short" - say 30 minutes - it might have been a blockbuster in the short film world. Which, of course, pays zilch.

The movie employs the labor-intensive method of stop-action animation using what appear to be little plastic toys and (probably) miniature, handmade props and painted backgrounds. It is a method seen less and less often because of the cheaper, easier route of computer generated imagery (CGI). (Come to think of it, could this film have been created using CGI to simulate stop action? Beats me. Increasingly, technology makes me paranoid.)

The central characters are an Indian, a Cowboy and a Horse. All three speak French and seem to lead a normal, middle class life in a house surrounded by farmland and livestock. We get to know their neighbors, the postman and the policeman. And, later on, some bad guys with small Japanese fans sticking out of their ears. Or were they paper airplanes? Only a neighbor couple; a music teacher who is a horse with the hots for Horse; and the policeman appear to have normal given names (Janine, Steven, Madame Longrée, and Gerard, respectively). Our triad of heroes are simply named Horse, Indian and Cowboy.

The cartoon montage begins behind the front credits: in less than a minute you guess that this might be a quirky movie. Everyone starts the day with a shower, including Horse. Horse is really fast at the computer keyboard, and later at a party we find out that Cowboy is a pretty good break dancer. In a take that is dangerously close to racial profiling, if not over the line, Indian's best skill is shooting arrows at things. (Should we forgive this stereotyping because the filmmakers are Belgian? No!) The dilemma du jour is that Cowboy and Indian have forgotten that today is Horse’s birthday, and they have no gift or plans for a celebration. Their frantic efforts to create the best possible arrangements under the circumstances frame the next hour of funny-to-boring frenzied activity, life threatening perils, bad luck, and encounters with nasty adversaries, both from afar and in the neighborhood.

No sense in filling in the details beyond this. Compared to most other stop action work I have seen, the current filmmakers can simulate spin moves, changes of pace, cuts to the left or right, speed, almost any character’s actions, in a more fluid, often hilarious manner than the others. Hmmmmm. CGI? At first the pace in all of the scenes is too rapid, so that, ironically, it is the early (best) part of the film that goes by too quickly. (In French) Grades: Originality/artistry of characters and action: A; Story, script and editing: C; Overall grade:  B (02/10/10).   

Add: In order to show you what I think are good animated features, ones that have sustained my interest till the end, you don’t have to reach all the way back to Fantasia (1940) or Alice in Wonderland (1951) - though both have held up quite well down the decades.  I can think of 4 excellent animated features I've enjoyed in recent years - films that don’t wilt or die after 40 minutes: Princess Mononoke (1997), Antz (1998), Chicken Run (2000), and The Triplets of Belleville (2003). Note that only one of these was made in the U.S. (Antz). The others came, respectively, from Japanese, British and French animators.

VINCERE (Win) (Marco Bellocchio, Italy/France, 2009, 126 m). SPOILER ALERT! Vincere is a complexly assembled film about a particular (and to some degree true) story from the early adult life of Benito Mussolini. It is the story of a long affair between Mussolini (Filippo Timi) - who is married and has a son - and Ida Dasler (Giovanna Mezzogiomo). They meet, fall in love and have a child, before Mussolini is swept up on a cloud of his own vanity to become Il Duce, the tyrannical, warmongering bully who will later lead Italy to destruction during WW II.

For awhile it isn’t entirely clear who the central protagonist is. Is it Mussolini, a young, dashing, wild eyed, violently sensual, dissident liberal (he was a socialist before he became a fascist)? Or his secret mistress, the bold, beautiful, but naïve Dasler. It turns out to be Dasler.

The film is structurally a patchwork of old grainy black & white archival (documentary) shots – newsreel quality stuff – of the older, fatter, more vainglorious Mussolini himself, and color footage of a docudrama filmed for Vincere, when Mussolini was young. The footage from these two sources is cut and interspersed in a manner that compromises continuity in favor of a more episodic narrative, as my partner, Jo Ann Weaver, pointed out to me.  

Fearing the embarrassment that public disclosure of his affair and a love child might bring, not to mention the political impediments to his ambition that might occur (he had already alienated the Vatican and many Italian citizens because of his very public atheistic beliefs), Mussolini, now head of state, arranges for Ida and their son Benitito to disappear into mental hospitals (a favorite trick of the Soviets later on for silencing and hiding away dissidents). Both mother and son die while incarcerated.

While Mussolini cannot help but stir outrage, my reaction to Dasler is mixed. Yes, she and her son were victims of the regime. But Dasler had every reason to suspect the worst, yet she plowed ahead as if the prospect of a happy reunion with her former lover was all but guaranteed, if only she could prove she was his wife. Come on, Ida, why didn’t you know better? Oh, well. Love is blind: a fact that Mussolini himself managed to avoid learning because of his narcissism and his violent and unloving nature.  

This film is too ambitious. It would have been more coherent had it declared itself as either a docudrama (the love story when Mussolini was young), or a documentary (M’s life or career), and proceeded accordingly. Lack of coherence and continuity spoil the film. (In Italian and German). Grade: C (02/08/10).

WARD NO. 6 (Karen Shakhnazarov, Russia, 2009, 83 m). Slices of life, insane asylum style. This contemporary drama is based on an updated version of an 1892 short story with the same title by Anton Chekhov, about a psychiatrist who goes mad and is placed in the same mental hospital where he worked. Chekhov, incidentally, was a physician, as well as a prolific playwright and short story writer.The film gives much attention to individual patients and life on the ward.

Ward No. 6 follows upon the success of another recent Russian film, Andrei Konchalovsky’s House of Fools (2002), about life in a public mental hospital near the Chechnyan border during a brief cease fire in the civil war with Russia.  Like Fools, Ward 6 employs a mixed cast of actors and actual mental hospital patients (e.g., all the subjects interviewed at the beginning of the film are real patients). I guess we call these films 'dramdocs' (where the players are a mix of actors and people playing themselves) to distinguish them from pure 'docudramas' (where all the players are actors)

These two Russian films belong to a genre defined by movies like The Snake Pit (1948); Shock Corridor (1963); King of Hearts (1966); Titicut Follies (1967); One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975); Frances (1982); and others. Welcome to the mental hospital or insane asylum movieland, which can be thought of within a larger category of “Institution-" or "Incarceration-based films.” This broader category includes prison movies, films about political prisoners and prisoners of war, illegal alien imprisonment, and so on.

Going back to Chekhov, we see that nearly 120 years ago, when psychiatrists were still as scarce as hens’ teeth, doctors in my profession were, like Dr. Ragin, already being portrayed as nutters or worse, a trope possibly related to a belief that cure depends on transferring the illness to a surrogate, a role traditionally played by the tribal shaman and perhaps today by the psychiatrist. (In Russian)  Grade: B+   (02/25/10).

Add:This film may return to Portland in May as part of a series of films adapted from Chekhov's writings.

I recently published an article on negative film portrayals of psychiatrists, focusing on the recent movie, Shrink, and the HBO-TV series, In Treatment. This article, "Evolution of Psychiatrists on Screen," appears in Clinical Psychiatry News, December, 2009, under the section titled ‘Opinion’ and, under that heading, the column titled ‘Reel Life.’ The link is: http://www.clinicalpsychiatrynews.com/article/S0270-6644%2809%2970432-1/fulltext   (You need to be a “registered user” of the on-line version of Clinical Psychiatry News to access this article. The prompts are simple; it only takes a minute to sign up; and the price is an ever-so-low nothing, nada, zero. Having this link will also give you access to more 'Reel Life' articles past and future, the very best reviews available on films from a psychiatric perspective (he says with all due modesty). (The column is running on a sporadic basis at the moment, roughly every other month.)

THE WARLORDS (Tau ming chong) (Peter Chan & Wai Man Yip, Hong Kong/China, 2007, 126 m). Here we have your basic "Eastern" (if we can have Westerns, why not?) This is a good enough film within its genre, but for me, like the old saying goes, as far as epic-scale, period battles in the Orient are concerned, if you’ve seen one, you’ve just about seen them all. (Mongol, happily, was a recent exception.) An aging Jet Li heads up the cast of combatants here. He’s pretty much reduced to simple sword work on the ground. I stayed as long as I did hoping he might limber up and whack somebody while flying through the air.  Didn’t happen. If the remainder of the film is like the part I saw, I would grade it a B, within its genre. (In Mandarin). Grade: NG (I left the film after 1 hour)  (02/17/10).

THE WEDDING SONG (Le chant des mariées) (Karin Albou, Tunisia/France, 2008, 100 m). This is an arresting narrative film about the Nazi occupation of Tunisia early in WW II, and its consequences for two neighboring families, one Sephardic Jewish, the other Muslim, especially the teen daughters of each family (Myriam and Nour, respectively) who are best friends. Karin Albou, the writer/director (who also plays Myriam ’s mother Tita), is especially interested in Arab-Jewish relations, also the subject of her earlier film, Little Jerusalem (La petite Jérusalem), which I have not seen, about a relationship between a Jewish woman and Muslim man.

The enacted footage was shot for this film; archival footage is minimal and effectively intercut; and there is a pallor – a feel of black and white - even in the long washed out color sequences. This chapter of the story of WW II was new to me.  I only had known of the Nazi occupation of North Africa from the perspectives of the Germans and Allies, not the innocents on the ground in places like Tunisia, where, for awhile, Americans were considered the enemy for bombing North African seaports to interrupt the Germans' supply lines. (In Arabic & French)  Grade: A-  (02/10/10).

Add: Cultural aside: this is the first theatrical film I’ve ever seen in which presumably Muslim women and girls are photographed semi-nude and nude, with frontal shots, including, in one instance, closeups of a late teen or early 20s genitals as her pubic hair is removed forcibly with a sticky wax, to prepare her for the wedding ceremony and first night together. How could this be accomplished. Articles or links, anyone?

WELCOME (Philippe Lioret, France, 2009, 110 m)SPOILER ALERT! We all know that Europe continues to stagger under the strain of immigration from Muslim countries. No wonder we've seen this sociocultural dilemma as a theme in several European films recently, beginning, perhaps, with the Dardenne Brothers' La promesse (1996). In Welcome an Iraqi Kurdish youth, Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), travels on foot from Iraq to Calais, a trip that has taken him 3 months. We meet him near the end of this journey.

Bilal wants to get to London, where his sweetheart Mina (Derya Ayverdi, Firat's actual sister) desperately awaits his arrival. Her father wants to marry her off to a prosperous cousin and considers the penniless Bilal beneath them. Bilal is stopped from crossing into England via the “chunnel” when he is discovered hiding in a truck driven by a member of a "handlers" team that smuggles illegal aliens into Britain for 500 Euros a pop. Bilal is permitted to stay in France because he’s viewed as meriting political asylum. In fact he is stranded in Calais for lack of money. A resourceful fellow who has made his way through a number of tough scrapes, Bilal gets the idea of swimming across the Channel to Dover.

Enter Simon Calmat (Vincent Lindon), a former Olympic 400 meter swimming champion, who now, nearing 50, is a swimming instructor in Calais. Simon is facing an unwanted divorce. Bilal shows up for lessons at the pool where Simon works, and for some reason Simon takes a liking to the young man, whose natural charm and good manners are winsome. Maybe it’s Simon’s vulnerability at the moment; he certainly seems needy. Anyhow, this fairly long establishment sequence sets up a tender but highly suspenseful unfolding of events for this odd couple, who come more and more to resemble a father and his son, or an uncle. It’s a relationship that, despite its improbability, keeps building, all the while feeling absolutely real and sensible.

You strain to know the outcome, even though you are aware that the gods do not generally look down with much favor on common people in trouble, especially illegals, however brave they may be or how much integrity they possess. (In French, Kurdish and English)  Grade: B+  (02/11/10)

WILD GRASS (Les herbes folles) (Alain Resnais, France/taly, 2009, 104 m). SPOILER ALERT! Alain Resnais turned 86 while making this film, his second in the last 3 years, following Private Fears in Public Places (2006). Both films are visually glorious, the colors vivid, the light often nearly lambent. And both are character driven in the best sense, i.e., Resnais succeeds in evoking depth of expression by his actors to flesh out their roles, without resorting to two-dimensional clichés, formulas, melodramatic antics or silly conceits.  Of course it helps to have a star-packed, super talented cast. As for the story, Resnais may no longer indulge in the dizzying montages that left audiences gasping in Last Year at Marienbad (1961), but the script for Wild Grass does provide more than enough mystery and ambiguity to leave one puzzled and eager to chatter with others who’ve also seen the picture.   

Georges (André Dussollier; Tell No One, Private Fears) finds a wallet next to his vehicle in a car park.  He's a late middle aged man who lives comfortably with his young wife Suzanne (Anne Consigny; A Christmas Tale, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). Upon discovering the wallet, he immediately becomes preoccupied: his response seems out of proportion to the event. In time he turns the wallet in at the local police precinct to an officer named Bernard (Mathieu Amalric; A Christmas Tale, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Munich). Cryptically, Georges worries that Bernard may recognize him from the past.  (It isn't the first puzzling reference put before us: Georges also vaguely alludes to killing a person or persons, or wanting to, or something like that; it's all unclear.) 

Over the next several days Georges becomes more obsessed with the woman.  He had found an airplane pilot's license in her wallet. This seems to excite him, since he is fond of flying, wishes he could fly.  In time Georges calls this woman, Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azéma, whose features resemble a blend of Susan Sarandon's and Julianne Moore's, with BIG red hair).  Marguerite lives up to her initial self-description as adventurous. She's a lively, independent woman: there appear to be no men in her life, unless you count the 5 young 20-somethings out at the airport who seem to worship her. She drives a bright yellow sports car (fast), flies a small plane regularly, and wants to buy a WWII British Spitfire fighter plane. Her day job is dentistry: she shares a successful practice with her friend and colleague, Josepha (Emmanuelle Devos; A Christmas Tale, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Read My Lips).

Georges begins to stalk Marguerite, they finally meet, and thus ensues a peculiar relationship marked by each alternately approaching or rejecting the other (marital therapists sometimes call this a push-pull relationship, a sure sign of deep ambivalence). Sex never seems to occur; even touching is minimal.  Now Marguerite is becoming as obsessed as Georges about matters between them. A number of boundaries are crossed. Marguerite impulsively visits Suzanne. Also out of the blue, Georges briefly makes out with Josepha in her car, a far more sensuous, if brief, encounter than any he has had with Marguerite. Bernard and his police team show up one day to urge Georges to stop making contact with Marguerite, after she files a complaint about him bothering her. Then, later on, she pursues him again. I'll not mention the ending except to say that it is not a happy one. And none of the puzzling aspects of the story are ever explained.

So we begin and end with mystery. You can't help wondering if Resnais is just toying with us, messing with our heads, to show he hasn't lost his chops for doing so. But, just for the heck of it, let's shift into sleuth mode and at least pose the pertinent questions. Did Georges have some connection to Marguerite in the past? Is she perhaps his daughter by his first wife? Is Georges somehow responsible for the wife's death? Has he killed anyone? Naw, that would be in the criminal justice database, unless, of course, he was neither caught nor convicted. (Still, he tells us that he isn't permitted to vote.) What is the nature of Georges’ past relationship to Bernard? Has Georges had a series of affairs with other women? (When he brings Josepha into the house, Suzanne scorches him with the rebuke, "Oh, so you're bringing them home now.") Have Josepha and Georges known one another previously? Is there a reincarnation riff here? The ending seems to have been inevitable, but what sense does it make? OK, now it's your turn. (In French)  Grade: B+  (02/12/10).

Add: Unless I missed something, I believe this is a cigarette-free film. Resnais' recent work in old age does not quite stand up to the record set by Portugal's Manoel de Oliveira, currently the world's oldest living director at 101 (born, 1908). De Oliveira has completed 7 films since 2005 and has another currently in pre-production!

THE WIND JOURNEYS (Los viajes del viento) (Ciro Guerra, Colombia/Netherlands/Argentina/Germany, 2009, 117m). AMONG MY TOP 5 PIFF FILMS! SPOILER ALERT! A mystical, dreamy road movie. An exotic film about the journey and adventures of a man, Ignacio (Marciano Martinez), a virtuoso accordion player who has stopped playing, and a boy, Fermin (Yull Núñez), who longs to be a musician and idolizes Ignacio.

Legend has it that Ignacio's accordion mentor and teacher won the instrument in an "accordion duel" with the Devil. (Sounds like bluesman Robert Johnson's story.) The enraged devil puts a curse on the instrument, which has horns and is painted black. The teacher thereafter gave the instrument to Ignacio, who has spent his life up until now roving the small villages and towns of Northern Colombia, playing for a living and gaining in celebrity along the way. Ignacio is also grieving the recent death of his spouse and does not want to go on living himself.

Ignacio worries that the cursed instrument is somehow to blame for the death of his wife and his current malaise. He decides never to play again, and that he must return the accordion to his mentor, to try to vanquish the curse. He sets off on a donkey one day to go far to the north, to the Caribbean, where his mentor lives. Fermin tags along with Ignacio, who seems annoyed about having the youth around. But off they go, Ignacio always riding the donkey, Fermin following on foot, on a road trip - a pilgrimage really - to visit Ignacio's old maestro. Both actors - Martinez and Núñez - give standout performances. The music is coarse, spirited and fun.

During the first 20 minutes or so of the film, there is almost no dialogue, mainly silence, as the action and the camera move ever so slowly.  The feel of these early scenes is reminiscent of the films of the Mexican neo-minimalist director, Carlos Reygadas (Japón [2002]; Silent Light [2007]). It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Ciro Guerra has been influenced by Reygadas, if not by the Asian neo-minimalists as well.

The journey is filled with brief encounters with cowboys, jefes, musicians, salt miners, sorcerers, cockfights, and accordion duels (in this contest, one player/singer tries to outdo another, as they take turns creating lyrics and improvising melodies). The film is also full of remarkable gazes at the rich variety of Colombian topography: the grasslands, spectacular mountains, stone formations, and the ocean. Mr. Guerra wrote as well as directed. For more about this enchanting film, visit: http://www.theauteurs.com/films/2400. (In Spanish and an unsubtitled native language). Grade: A (02/20/10)

WOMAN WITHOUT PIANO (La mujer sin piano) (Javier Rebollo, Spain, 2009, 94 m). SPOILER ALERT!  Rosa (Spanish TV superstar Carmen Machi), a beautician, lives comfortably with her cab driver husband Francisco (Pep Ricart) in their Madrid apartment, where she receives women clients who come for electrolysis, an electrical/heat method to remove body and facial hair (in fact, I learned more about electrolysis in this film than I care to know). In the movie we will spend a day and a night, a bit over 24 hours, shadowing Rosa, just like Hawk would do in a Robert B. Parker pulp novel.

Rosa is not a happy camper. A piano is not the only thing she’s without. She's without romance in her life (she is married to the homeliest fellow in movies since Marty Feldman left us in 1982). Rosa wants to flee her monotonous marriage, but she's without a plan for where to go and what to do.

Worst of all, she is totally without any luck. Over and over again, in the early part of the film (it’s morning on the day we meet her), we see her every intention denied. The post office won’t give her a package that seems very important to her, something she had ordered 3 months earlier, because she does not have proper identification with her. She is told not to smoke in one place after another. She is turned away from a ticket counter because of some technicality. A women's restroom is closed. It goes on and on, one barrier after another thrown up in her path. 

Is it possible that the filmmakers are trying to TELL US SOMETHING with this fusillade of omens?  They’re beating everyone over the head to suggest that, just maybe, Rosa won't get very far with anything she wants to do today, like putting her vague plan into action, perhaps to get out of Dodge. Rosa can't see these things. She's not a mystic, not into signs and wonders. She does try rather boldly to succeed. (Or is it secede?) She even gets together for a few hours with a younger man, a stranger, Rdek (Czech actor Jan Budar, who is also cast in The Protector at PIFF this year). 

Her hopes soar. Then he tells her he’s leaving Spain to go home.  She privately decides to go along (which we can assume is not the course of action that Rdek would have encouraged, had he known). That plan is also thwarted. Finally, late in the night, having hung around on the streets like someone homeless - which, I suppose, she technically was - Rosa makes a decision. STOP.

<<< If you don’t want to know what Rosa’s decision was, press the one button now. If you do want us to tell you, press 2.  If undecided, hang up and call a friend, if you still need to reach out to someone. Or, you may redial us once you’ve formed some sort of personal POV about this film. Seeing the movie might help. By the way, your call is not important to us; we’re actually very busy here. >>> 

I’ve given away enough secrets from this film, so I don't wish to discuss Rosa's decision any further. I’ll just say that the outcome is similar to that in the Italian film, Bread and Tulips (see “Add” tag, next). (In Spanish)  Grade: B  (02/18/10)

Add: This movie reminds me of a better one employing the same conceits (a married woman's flights of fancy, of rebooting life, being swept away by a romantic partner). I’m thinking of Silvio Soldini’s Bread and Tulips (2000). Rosalba (Licia Maglietta), your standard issue bored suburban housewife and mother, experiences a mad impulse to spread her wings and fly away – to Venice, where adventure and, perchance, love, are lurking. With powerful Bruno Ganz as Rosalba's heartthrob Fernando. A romantic couple who find one another on some enchanted evening.

"KEEP ON SCROLLIN' "

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BEST FILMS SEEN IN 2009

© Roland Atkinson 2009, 2010
Final Version, February 4, 2010

As in years past, I once again refuse to make a “Top 10” list. Too many good films. Too many film genres that cannot easily be compared. Too pretentious to suggest that something rated #3 is better than #4, as if one had calipers for measuring such fine distinctions. My top rated films are listed by categories I make up each year to suit the available material and my personal whims. (I generally avoid horror, mainstream action, fantasy, science fiction and animated features.)

Titles are followed by country (-ies) of the film’s origin or sponsorship, in parentheses.. Because I don’t get to see every film during the year of its release, a few may show up on this list that were on national critics’ lists for 2008. In turn, I’ve not yet seen some 2009 releases that critics liked; several haven’t screened yet in Portland (see my “caveat collection” below).

THE FILMS

DRAMA (tie): An Education (UK); and Up in the Air (US)

DOCUDRAMAS/BIOPICS (3-way tie): Il Divo (Giulio Andreotti) (Italy); Invictus
    (Nelson Mandela) (US); and The Young Victoria (Queen Victoria) (UK/US)

ACTION/SUSPENSE/MYSTERY (3-way tie): Gomorrah (Italy); Jerusalema (South
       Africa); and Revanche (Austria)

COMEDY: The Hangover (US)

LIFE'S PASSAGES (3-way tie): Cherry Blossoms (Germany); Everlasting Moments
(Sweden); and A Single Man (US)

ON THE ROAD AGAIN: Away We Go (US)

OLDIES BUT GOODIES (tie): Le Combat dans L'ile (aka Fire and Ice)(1962, but just
        released in US) (France); & Mr. Hulot's Holiday (new print of Tati's favorite cut,
        1978) (France)

GENERAL DOCUMENTARIES: The Class (France)

BIODOCS (tie): The Beaches of Agnes (France); and The English Surgeon        
      (UK/Ukraine)

IRAQ/AFGHANISTAN WARS: The Hurt Locker (US)

MIDDLE EAST CONFLICT (tie): Lemon Tree (Israel); and Waltz with Bashir (Israel)

WORLD SOCIAL CONDITIONS: Snow (Bosnia)

WORLD HISTORY/GEOPOLITICS (tie): Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation
       (Namibia); and Pray the Devil Back to Hell (US)

DOWN ON THE FARM: Food, Inc. (US)

MUSIC/ARTS/DANCE (tie): Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037
       (US); and The Silence Before Bach (Spain)

CINEMA & THEATER: The Karamazovs (Czech Republic)

THIS SPORTING LIFE: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (US)

EL MUNDO DE LATINOS AMERICANOS: Lion's Den (Argentina)

RELIGION (tie): Religulous (US); and Worlds Apart (Denmark)

TEEN SCENE: Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire (US)

MEMORABLE CHARACTERS (tie): Crazy Heart (Bad Blake, Jeff Bridges'
         country singer) (US); and O'Horten (Odd Horten, newly retired) (Norway)

REMAKES: 12 (From "Twelve Angry Men") (Russia)

FAR AWAY PLACES (tie): Bliss (Mutluluk) (Turkey/Greece); and Tulpan
        (Kazakhstan)

MENTAL HEALTH-RELATED FILMS (3-way tie): Goodbye Solo (US); Seraphine
(France); and Shrink (US)

GOLDEN GOBBLER AWARD (worst film seen): Opium War (Afghanistan)

CAVEAT COLLECTION (films released in 2009 that I have not yet seen that
        could have altered my list): Avatar, Bright Star, Fados, The Last Station,
        The Maid, Me and Orson Welles, The Proposal, and The White Ribbon

BEST FILM OF THE YEAR

Still Walking (Japan)

Kore-eda Hirokazu (Maborosi, Afterlife, Nobody Knows) presents the story of an ordinary family coping with loss of loved ones and other changes in their lives. Nuanced, subtle, with never a false move, this is what I judge to be a perfect film. (It has been compared to Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 classic, Tokyo Story.)

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Best of the "Best"
By Louis Menand

As Aristotle said (was it Aristotle? maybe is was Parmenides), Man is the list-making animal.  He was dreaming, no doubt, of a list, someday, of the Top Ten Philosophers.  Such a list might fall a little short of universal appeal.  That cannot be said, though, of the lists of the year’s Top Ten Movies…that arrive each December, during the week before New Year’s.  Everyone acts so superior to lists (so arbitrary and invidious!), but the act is a bluff.  The fact of the matter is basic and ineluctable: we need these lists. The year would not be complete without them.  The year would not make sense without them.

The first response to the appearance of the ten-best lists is simple gratitude.  It is good to know that someone has been paying attention…You need, you realize, a list, and in exactly the same way that a drowning sailor needs a life preserver. The people who make these lists, the daily or weekly reviewers, have crossed the great sea of packaged amusement, pathos, and distraction for us, and they have emerged, clutching in their hands just ten plastic jewel cases.  Here, they say; these are the best.  We can imagine the nausea and entertainment fatigue they must have suffered during their twelve-month ordeal.  We admire their grit and their pluck, and we salute them.

Of course, like all things that pretend to perfect transparency, a top-ten list is the result of juggling and calculation.  It looks straightforward: ten numbers, ten titles.  Of the (at least) five hundred movies released in the United States in 2003, these just happen to be the best ten, and in this order. (Critics who present their top-ten lists alphabetically are dodging their own bullets.  If ten movies are clearly superior to the four hundred and ninety others, why would it be elitist to make further distinctions?  If you can get a top ten, why can’t you get a top five, and a top three, and a top one?)  But best-ness isn’t the only factor that goes into the making of an annual ten-best list.  After all, what does every critic who makes a ten-best list secretly wish?  That his or her list will be the best ten-best list.  The list itself has to be fun, interesting, good.

For example, it would not do to list ten movies all of which star Nicole Kidman.  Pure eclecticism is to be avoided; it duplicates the dizzying randomness of megastore experience.  But a good list displays a healthy, big-tent ecumenism, and an expansive tolerance with respect to Billboard rankings and box-office gross. In a mass-market publication, a movie list should contain one foreign-language film that few readers have heard of. (To have more might look effete.)  Uniqueness is the desideratum here.  A critic does not want to see his or her “surprise” item turning up as the “surprise” on another critic’s list. Conversely, in an “alternative” or highbrow publication the movie list needs one blockbuster – one film the critic liked despite the fact that everyone else liked it.  The chief thing is to run an item or two against the grain of the readership.  It is depressing to read a list of movies and realize that you missed all of them, but it is just as disappointing to discover that you have seen every one.  You want to know that there are still a few truffles left in the box.

Above all, a good top-ten list should convey authority.  Not quite Olympian authority, maybe; readers should be able to argue with it, to dissent a bit at the margins.  But, ideally, the list should suggest a finality of judgment: life is short; your time is precious; spend it on these.  It has to be said that, in this regard, there are trends in end-of-the-year list-making that people concerned about the future of our civilization ought to view with alarm.

The main trouble is the practice of publishing multiple ten-best lists.  The credibility of any list is naturally weakened by the presence of an alterative list right next to it.  This year, the Times (New York Times) ran three lists of the ten best movies, one by each of its chief film critics.  The result was a total of twenty-four top-ten movies.  Only six movies appeared on more than one list, and not one appeared on all three.  What are we to think?  That there was not a single movie that three basically like-minded persons writing for a mainstream paper could agree on as an obvious top ten?  Then the paper ran a piece in which the critics quarreled with each other over the rest of the year’s movies.  It was demoralizing, like watching your parents argue: of course they do, but you don’t need to know about it.

The publication of multiple ten-best lists is probably a well-intentioned effort to embrace the principle of pluralism, and to make a democratic acknowledgement that taste is, after all, a personal and subjective matter.  The effort is mistaken.  Pluralism and democracy are fine things, but they have no place in the evaluation and consumption of pop culture, especially today, when, all around us, the sea is rising.  The critic is the dolphin who can take us over the waves.  The image is from Plato, or, if it wasn’t Plato, one of the other top guys.
       ---- from “Talk of the Town,” The New Yorker magazine, January 12, 2004, pp. 23-24 (slightly abridged)