Film Reviews by Genre: SOULFUL
An angel likes to sun himself on the roof of an apartment building filled with tenants looking for love, fortune, future and the meaning of life. That is, until someone pushes him off and he can’t fly.
A blood-spattered sidewalk marks the beginning and (near) end of $9.99. Along the way there is a pot-smoking lonely guy’s miniature beer drinking buddies, an old man who befriends the angel but discovers he has never been to heaven, and a kid who can’t break his smiling piggy bank because it is so happy.
How do you put flights of fancy and truthful realism in the same movie? By using table top animation. $9.99 is done entirely with flexible puppets bent into different shapes and facial expressions. It even features a penis that sways a little as its owner walks naked across the room. The voices are by notables like Geoffrey Rush; but who cares when the characters they mouth include a sexy women who fucks guys so sublimely they want to debone themselves and become formless bean bag chairs (the antithesis of having a boner).
Director Tatia Rosenthal follows the tradition of stop-motion animation made popular by the Wallace and Gromet films. Clay characters are moved one or two frames at a time to create the illusion of continuous movement. The method $9.99 uses for artistic expression evolved long ago from the need of movies to create fantasy.
Ray Harryhausen, one of the gifted early practitioners, created films like Mighty Joe Young and The Valley of the Gwangi (an unsung classic). Table top animation, as it was also known, allowed for breathtaking sequences like King Kong battling airplanes atop the Empire State Building and Godzilla rising out of the sea.
Now that computer animation (everything Pixar makes) and computer generated effects (including Armie Hammer playing twins in The Social Network) have made everything doable in movies; stop motion has been freed to find more artistic deployments. Tatia Rosenthal is a New Yorker who grew up in Israel and found a lucky connection with Israeli and Australian money to make her film (which explains why it is set in Sidney).
In an interview on the Motionographer website, a really interesting place to learn about new directions in animation, she said, “The stop-motion world is a step removed from realism. The controlled, sparse nature of the environment and expression of the “actors” allows an observational distance from reality, letting the audience find what it is that makes the stories and characters, in fact, human.”
If there are flaws in the film, they are in the writing. A little more narrative cohesiveness would have knitted things together better. But then, $9.99 is a step removed from realism so story has to find its own language. And let’s remember, at 78 minutes (animated films are usually shorter than live action), you can stay the course and watch the wide-eyes characters with your own unblinking attention.
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION
Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Virginia Madsen, Garrison Keillor
At the end of the movie, the Angel of Death enters an all-night cafe where the cast is having coffee and reminiscing. The implication is she will take them all. But Garrison Keillor and his troupe survived. Director Robert Altman is dead.
The radio show on which this film is based has been broadcast every week since 1974 (with a five year hiatus when Keillor moved to Europe) It is a living American phenomenon. Yet Garrison Keillor wrote this script about death. The Angel of Death is one of the stars (Virginia Madsen).
The movie hasn’t been liked by many. My enthusiasm is a minority view. It’s tough to make a movie about a legend when the legend lives in weekly installments that are more interesting than any movie. To view A Prairie Home Companion objectively you would need to be from Mars (or maybe Cambodia). Then the question is: why would you give a shit about a lot of old farts singing folk songs and dying?
Keillor’s audience is not Cambodians; it is American Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964). The America in which these citizens came of age included The Atom Bomb Scare, the Communist Menace, Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, Women’s lib and The Pill. A Prairie Home Companion is their connection to the mythical America of their parents where everything was supposedly the way it should have been.
Garrison Keillor is a gifted storyteller and a clever borrower. Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club was on the air from 1933 to 1968. If you really want to know the roots of A Prairie Home Companion get the book Don McNeill and his Breakfast Club and listen to the enclosed CD of some old shows.
But Don McNeill was just doing a breakfast show. Garrison Keillor is our pastor and his sermon is about death. Yes, death is the theme of the radio show and also the movie. Did you know the title comes from the Prairie Home Cemetery in Moorhead, Minnesota? Garrison’s soothing voice is a reassurance that even though we missed the great years, we can still relive them on the radio and carry eternity like a backpack. He conjures up the same mystical hypnotism that makes us endlessly watch new productions of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and leave teary-eyed.
In the movie, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohman, and John C. Riley top the cast that circles Garrison and tries to lift him out of his melancholia. He gives himself a pivotal role but lets them carry the spotlight. A lot of people are disappointed he didn’t just stick with the radio show and make himself the big star. But this is a MOVIE. It has a point of view. It is drama, not a daily breakfast show or weekly Saturday night variety show.
The writer is telling us that the America of the radio show, the America in our heads: is no longer. It is a childhood myth we need to get past. Maybe that is why Lindsay Lohman, the only character in the entire movie who is too young to be a Baby Boomer, makes her mother, Meryl Streep, sign power-of-attorney papers in the ending scene. She’s telling her Mom it’s okay to go on believing in her lovely boomer fairytales about American as long as her daughter is practical enough to decide when to cut off life support.
Looking at the film as a sunset ode to the Boomer Generation makes it more than informational. Keillor and Altman are Boomers both. They are writing their own epitaph. For Altman it was (his last film). I wish Keillor many more years. When he ended the radio show back in 1987 (and resumed it five years later), he closed with a remembrance from his boyhood when he imagined floating around the bend in the river to a world he could only imagine.
For those who heard that last broadcast the image has never faded, and the hope of what is to come has not dimmed. His is the lulling voice calming our fears about what is to come. If you are a certain age, see the movie and understand what Keillor and Altman are trying to say. If you are Cambodian, see Ghost Banana Tree instead.
CHILDREN OF HEAVEN
Amir-Farrokh Hashemian, Bahare Seddiqui, Amir Naji
Ali wins the race but cries because he didn’t make third place. If only he’d run a little slower he might have won the concession prize of a pair of sneakers and been able to replace his sister’s shoes that he lost.
There are a lot of reminders of The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio DeSica 1948) in Children of Heaven. The bicycle film is about a man and his son searching vainly for a stolen bike they desperately need for work in post-war Italy. In Children of Heaven, Ali (Amir-Farrokh Hashemian) and his father (Amir Naji) ride a bicycle through the wealthy suburbs of Tehran desperately sneaking work as gardeners so they can make enough money for the family to survive; and buy a new pair of shoes to replace younger sister Zahra’s (Bahare Seddiqui) pair that he lost.
The stories of both films play on the same theme: poor people whose existence is tied to essentials but who are happy in spite of the limits life has placed on them. The last scene of the movie, where Ali has finally accomplished his modest goals, shows him taking off his shoes, examining his blistered feet (from the race) and cooling them in the courtyard fishpond. The goldfish swimming around his swollen feet provide a feeling of peace and harmony with the world.
The fish give his feet a busa hamoni, a “bath kiss” in Farsi: what every mother gives her children in the bath. It is a peaceful end to a film that is about children and children’s concerns (lost shoes) and at the same time about larger issues like rich versus poor. It is also about how Iran’s well-regulated education system tends to obscure the lack of upward mobility even for kids who receive good education.
Rich versus poor is resonant theme from Bicycle Thieves (the original title, for some reason it became one thief, The Bicycle Thief, in the American title). De Sica’s film was dismissed in his native Italy because bicycles got stolen all the time. It was a hit in American hit: one of the Neo-Realism school of films honestly depicting the aftermath in war shattered Europe. The images showed poor people trying to put their lives together at a time when American style post-war capitalism, new to Europe, was rewarding the politically well connected.
These images were disquieting to an America during the post-war boom. Americans saw the US as a benevolent victor. If this was true, then how could these Italians be so distraught about losing a bicycle? Similarly, Children of Heaven shows Ali’s father, with Ali hanging on behind, pumping his bicycle through the dense traffic of modern Tehran and stopping at gated house after gated house begging for work as gardeners. If the Iranian revolution leveled the playing field then who are these super rich people?
The name “Children of Heaven” really asks the questions “what heaven?” and “whose heaven?” Life looks pretty good if you are among the elite. But when your father makes his living breaking up sugar with a hammer and tears roll down your cheeks because you lost your sister’s only pair of worn out shoes; is this really the egalitarian country its leaders claim?
Children of Heaven won the Academy Award for best foreign film. What were those overfed SUV driers of Beverly Hills thinking about? Did they see this as a sweet movie about two adorable kids? They are adorable, but you need to look behind the headscarves to see a society that is deeply troubled; and where a new revolution was beginning to find a voice.
When the film was released in 1997 it seemed sweet as the sugar Ali’s father hammered into bits. In fact it was remade as an Indian film, Bumm Bumm Bole. Viewing it in the years since adds more history to the story of Zahra’s tattered shoes.
Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Rokoyo Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo
If you want to know about cultural differences watch Departures after a few episodes of TV’s Dexter. One comes from a thousand year tradition and the other from a twenty-minute idea sketched on a napkin.
That’s not to say either is better, just different. Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) isn’t a righteous serial killer like Dexter; he’s an out of work cello player who falls into an obsession with the dead because of a misprint in a newspaper want ad. His job is giving people a good send off after they are dead. Dexter’s mission is similar except he gives people a good send off by making them dead.
Daigo becomes an assistant funeral preparer, learning from his boss, Ikuei (Tsutomu Yamazaki). The Japanese go through an elaborate ritual of washing and preparing the dead before they are put in a coffin and cremated. It’s apparently the way things are done, even though it seems like a lot of work and waste of materials. Don’t the Japanese get it about green and recycling?
First repulsed, Daigo becomes fascinated with his work; though never admitting his new profession to his wife. He tells her he’s in “ceremonies.” Like Dexter, you can’t make a movie about death without some humor. In fact there is a lot of humor. From the opening scene where they are preparing a body they discover is an hermaphrodite, to later sequences with his boss, Ikuei, who does body prep between endless cigarettes.
The power of the movie is not only making something repulsive into something beautiful, but asking and (finally) answering the question of why a nice kid who plays a good classical cello would want to do this. In each of us there is a core of something never understood, always present, and rarely resolved. With Daigo it is his childhood abandonment by his father.
Returning to his own village, taking a bizarre job that exposes him to other people’s emotions at the moment of final loss, and confronting the death of the man he never knew; is his own way of reaching into his secret place and freeing himself. It is his departure.
Two things worth noting here: the rather amazing screenplay by Kundo Koyama (who has written a lot of Japanese TV). How does anyone get an idea like this? And the performance of Tsutomu Yamazaki as the world-weary boss who is a substitute father. Also Tsutomu as the brother who is the warlord in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980). Don’t know that one? Shame on you.
Nicolas Winding Refn
Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman
The genius he brings to Bernie Rose, the character he plays in Drive, is the embodies the characters he plays in all his earlier films but with a world-weariness that has turned him lethal. There’s the same “wouldn’t you know it” sigh and resignation but now the disappointment is not losing all his money in Las Vegas and ending up a school crossing guard; but seeing his gang fuck up the big one and sadly setting it right by killing everybody.
His scene with Shannon (Byran Cranston) is one of the coldest murders ever on screen. Bernie slashes the artery in his arm and says sympathetically, “that’s it, no pain,” as if he was Shannon’s nice guy father come to administer a little spanking to a child who knows he has it coming.
Brooks is not the star of Drive. That honor belongs to Ryan Gosling, who drives the movie extremely well. And the cool-y observed existential LA of nights and freeways is the amazing creation of Nicolas Winding Refn, the director. Every generation creates their LA existential movie. Refn: a Dane from New York and Copenhagen has defined it for the now we live in.
But the movie belongs to Albert Brooks as much as another movie with a great heavy many years ago belonged to another comedian. That film was about a pool shark at the end of his days much like Drive features a petty mobster at the end of his days. Brooks looks at the racer up on a grease rack and says his name could have been on the side. Jack Gleason looked at a pool cue in The Hustler and thought he could come back for one more win. Both movies show us what happens when laugher turns to anger and younger men snatch the dreams. See them both.
Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans
Greenberg (USA 2010, 107 min. dir: Noah Baumbach, cast: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans.
Every generation makes its mid-life crises movie going back to Bye Bye Braverman. But Noah Baumbach’s take on the problem is especially good because of Greta Gerwig and Ben Stiller.
Yes, Ben Stiller can actually act. That’s the news from Greenberg. And Greta Gerwig is nothing but a very good actress in a role that calls for underplaying. She’s Florence, the assistant to Roger Greenberg’s (Ben Stiller) successful brother. The brother and his family are conveniently away on vacation, allowing his brother from New York to live in their house and build a new doghouse for the German shepherd (Greenberg is a carpenter).
Florence sings at a small, empty club when she isn’t taking care of the dog. Roger laments that his life is nothing more than his life. Of course they have an affair and the first sex scene is wonderful for it’s total lack of emotion. He can’t give much more than a good ejaculation. She expects nothing more of any man.
Roger laments to his old drop-out buddy Ivan (Rhys Ifans) that it is probably too late to go to med school or even veterinarian school at 50. Truth be told, at fifty he doesn’t even drive a car and seems confused by more than Florence. “Where is my life going?” is the question none of this genre a movies can ever answer except to shrug and conclude, “That’s my life.”
What makes this one different is good performances, especially from Greta Gerwig as the sweet, clunky girl who is not quite pretty enough and ambitious enough to find herself. And to make it more complicated, she’s pregnant by someone else (whom we never meet).
We know where this will end, but the curiosity that sustains the movie is our getting there with them. Too bad the setting is Los Angeles’ west side. There’s a lot of truth in this story that gets lost in Beverly Hills and Bel Air. The map restricts the point of view because everything is circumscribed by wealth and ease.
But you can’t help warming up to poor schnook Greenberg as he flails and fails and even brings a cheeseburger to Florence’s hospital bed while she recovers from her abortion. “I thought you might be hungry,” he explains as he sets it on her stomach.
JAMES' JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM
Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe, Salim Dau, Arieh Elias
A man who believes in Utopia comes to the Utopian world and finds it is no longer the place of dreams. He is the only prophet left. James speaks Zulu and comes to Israel on a mission to see Jerusalem and report back to his little village about its wonders.
Instead he finds himself enslaved in a cruel economic system set up to exploit illegal foreigners. He learns the people of the Promised Land have lost all connection with The Holy Land.
The premise may be shocking to modern day Israelis who tend to intellectualize the faults of their country. Films like Lemon Tree (MovieWithMe) present aspects of injustice that stems from misunderstanding and political dilemmas. James’ perception is more basic.
He comes as a pilgrim looking for the place God has declared holy because it is where sin stops and truth begins. That may sound Christian but let’s not forget the Jews, “Let he who is without sin ascend this holy place.”
You’re only supposed to grab the Torah with clean hands, but that is not what James finds in his Israeli adventure.
Once he catches on, he quickly learns to make his way among the exploiters. It works for a while; until righteousness overtakes him and he can’t go on playing the game.
Israeli society can’t comprehend James and doesn’t want to try. It’s much easier to deport him. In his last moment, he catches a glimpse of the way to Jerusalem.
This is a movie that drips with anti-Israel sentiments. Jews are fast to pass this off as hate propaganda. But they should look a little deeper. The criticisms here are of a system of underclass exploitation that has distorted the founding vision of the country. The Israelis portrayed are sometimes sympathetic and always complex. Too often they are comfortable in the world they have built on the backs of others.
James is an innocent searching for the wonders of the Holy Land amid the rubble of high rise hotels and low rise schemers. The sadness of the movie is our understanding that his message will be lost, even if it is dead on right.
Mohammad Bakri, Areen Omari, Nour Zoubi
Does anyone born in the Gaza strip still have a sense of humor? There’s no shortage of movies about the Israeli point of view, but what about the Palestinians? Rashid Masharawi was born in the strip, but he’s still (at least in2008) able to find dark humor in the situation.
Abu is a taxi driver. Actually he is a judge, but there is no money to pay judges. In fact, no one wants to hear his pitch for new judicial job because his taxi is parked in a driveway blocking a delivery. He put on his best suit, took his briefcase, and rushed to the interview even though today is his daughter’s birthday and he must buy her a cake.
Cakes are more difficult to find than stinger missiles. While having coffee and waiting for his tire to be fixed, an incoming Israeli missile blows up the other end of the street, He runs to claim his taxi but it is on its way to the hospital with the wounded. At the hospital he finds his taxi but one of the survivors who needs to be driven home.
Does this sound like the Passover song, Chad Gadya? (The fire came that burned the goat that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat which my father bought for two zuzim). And on and on through the trials of everyday life in the occupied, (or disputed) territories.
Finally he does get to buy a cake and take it home for the final moment where he sings happy birthday to his daughter along with his wife. When she asks, “How as your day,” he replies, “Nothing special.”
Laila’s Birthday is dark, amusing, and informative. Who relates best to this humor? The Israeli’s, of course. Too bad they can’t all sit down together and laugh at each other’s movies.
Leila Hatami, Ali Mosaffa
You can’t have children but you can give your husband permission to take another wife and you get to pick her. If this was an American remake it would star Adam Sandler and Sarah Silverman (actually, not a bad idea). But this an Iranian original and there is not an ounce of comedy in it.
Leila dearly loves Rez and he loves her. But the pressure of his family to produce a child is too strong for her to weather. She consents to the worst she can imagine: allowing her husband, under Muslim law, to take a second wife while she remains married to him.
The slow destruction, and final resurrection, of the intimate life between them is deadly serious, intense, and heart breaking. We see an Iran behind the headlines; in the interiors of wealthy houses where family ties are a bond as strong as love. Except for the multiple wife custom, it looks surprisingly Western and modern.
The couple try to work out their problems on long drives through the Tehran city nightscape, returning home to make appetizing dinners of kabobs and veggies. If it wasn’t for the women having to throw on chadors every time they stepped out of the house, you might think it was LA. In the family gatherings there is a lot of friction between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, but everyone eats exceedingly well.
Leila Hatami also stars in Low Heights, the airplane hijack movie also on MovieWithMe. There she also plays the long suffering wife, but at least she’s got a gun. Here she’s restricted to a kabob spear. See Leila Hatami for the performance she brings to a beautifully written story about the intensity of young marriage; and also see the film for the food: beautifully prepared and eaten.
Hiam Abbas, Ali Suliman
If you’ve seen recent Israeli movies, you know Israel has already lost the war. Art usually precedes events. A nation that walls off its enemy while reserving the right to invade at will is blind: even with night vision goggles. Anything said of the Israelis can apply to us. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Viet Nam are not yet finished. At some point our guns will not protect us.
Lemon Tree is a simple tale about a backyard fence erected in the name of security. Nobody dies, nobody goes to prison. But nobody who puts up the fence thinks of the human cost. The human cost is what new Israeli films are about. Waltz with Bashir, also on MovieWithMe.com, is a complex narrative about Israeli sanctioned slaughter. Here as well, the human cost-not only to the enemy but to the Israeli soldiers: is never factored in. Films like these speak to moral fractures that can only widen.
In Lemon Tree, the new Israeli Defense Minister decides to build his dream country house right on the border with West Bank Palestine (a little improbably, but what the hell). His neighbor across the wire is a Palestinian woman who has been tending the lemon grove that was planted by her father. The minister’s security men decide the lemon grove offers potential cover to terrorist encroachment, and must be cut down. They offer to compensate the woman, but she doesn’t want the money, she wants her land and her lemons.
A young Palestinian lawyer takes her case and argues all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. He achieves a partial victory: they will cut down the trees near the border fence, and leave some of the ones farther away. It doesn’t help, and the person who seems to understand her plight, and her powerlessness the most; is the wife of the Defense Minister. They eye each other across the backyard border throughout the movie, yet meet only once, briefly, in court. Their eyes seem to ask: is this the only way we can live, do we actually understand each other better than we know?
In their rush to seal the border against all threats are the Israelis never pausing to see their enemy is also human? Regardless of your feelings on the politics, the performance of the Palestinian woman and her lawyer are so rich and subtle that the film is always engaging and human. Haim Abbas carries the weight of the Palestinian people in her eyes.
LOVERS OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE
Najwa Nimri, Fele Martinez
MARY AND MAX
Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries
Can clay figurines assume more emotion than flesh and blood humans? If the answer is no we can throw out all those statues of Jesus. If the answer is yes we ought to take a close look at Mary and Max.
What Adam Elliot does with clay figures to create the very real emotions of Mary and Max is amazing. These are two very complex and needy people. Mary is growing up in a dysfunctional home in Melbourne, Australia, while Max is binge eating his way to corpulence in his New York apartment. There is no love for them at either end of the postal spectrum. Yes, postal: they actually write letters to each other in an age before email. Mary’s chance encounter with a library phonebook page links them together.
Actually is a relative term here. The story never really happened, but fragments of it did occur within the circle of friends and family of director/writer Adam Elliot. From childhood he had an incurable twitch, probably Tourette Syndrome that made him as much an outcast as he made Mary with her forehead birthmark.
It makes sense that a lonely kid who grew up on a shrimp farm in Australia found his way into the equally remote and silent realm of tabletop film animation. Elliot did several acclaimed Claymation shorts before Mary and Max.
If there is a future for filmmaking it will be hugged by lonely artists in airless rooms creating personal visions like this one. Box office champs may still be called “films,” but the better name invented by Aldus Huxley in 1984 was “feelies.”
Real film, the progeny of Eisenstein and Spottiswoode is the medium of artists like Elliot. It exists frame by frame, and it creates worlds that cannot exist elsewhere.
Mary and Max is pure filmmaking. First it is Claymation. That is the name given to the tedious process of moving objects made of clay one frame at a time. Wallace & Gromit popularized Claymation, but the tabletop technique goes back to the films of Ray Harryhausen and before (King Kong, for example).
I won’t describe the plot, you can Google it. The voices of Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman are perfect. The music by Dale Cornelius, even though a bit over used, is a memorable movie theme. My only question is how Mary and Max’s movie could sneak into theaters, get awards, and disappear without leaving a ripple on the water? I’m glad at least I found it.
MY NAME IS KAHN
Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol
The plight of a Muslim man from India traveling across the US trying to convince post 9/11 America that he is not a terrorist is enough, but burdened with Asperger Syndrome it makes Shah Rukh Khan’s (Rizvan) performance all the more amazing.
This hybrid film is actually a Bollywood production but set in San Francisco and dealing with American problems faced by Indian immigrants. Before Rizvan Kahn’s problems even begin with being suspected as a terrorist, he has to overcome the prejudices of his own people against Muslims. He falls in love with beautiful Mandira (played by Kajol) but she is Hindi and shunned for marrying him.
The bombing of the Word Trade Center shocks their world and makes him a marked man because he is a Muslim and because he can not properly explain himself on account of the Asperger Syndrome effects. He embarks on a journey across the US to see the president and explain that he is not a terrorist. Along the way he touches many people and, somewhat like an Indian Jesus, brings a message of love and tolerance wherever he goes.
It goes well, it goes badly. It actually goes on a long time at over two and a half hours. But then, Bollywood films are usually measured by the hours of pleasure, not the minutes of seat squirming. Along the way are music, songs, colors and hope. There is a lot to see here and enough to keep your finger away from the fast forward button.
Adam Bousdoukos, Mortiz Bleibtreu
A Turkish director makes a film about a Greek restaurateur in Hamburg, Germany. Soul Kitchen is no Euro Pudding: the derogatory name given to coproductions that pluck money from several countries and weave a mix of actors, locations, and crew to take advantage of money-saving treaties.
The mystery here is not why anyone would make this very lively and pleasant film, but why Fatih Aikin made it? His more soulful films include Head On and The Edge of Heaven (MovieWithMe). In contrast, Soul Kitchen is a bouncy stories about an ambitious young business hustler (Adam Bousdoukos),who manages to overcome a temperamental chef (Morirz Bleibtreu), an absentee girlfriend, and a host of other characters and crazies: All to make a success of his soulful little eatery.
Fatih Akin grew up in the Turkish community of Hamburg. The Germans invited thousands of Turks to become guest workers in the auto plants in the 1970′s when business was booming and their was a labor shortage. They never dreamed that forty years later the Turks would still be there. It is now common to see women on the streets with chadors over their faces. The Kruetzburg district of Berlin has the best Turkish food west of Istanbul and east of New York.
It’s not easy growing up in a foreign culture that is your culture. Especially when the “foreign” and “your” are forever confused. If only the Germans would see you as one of them rather “them.” Some of Aikin’s acclaimed films offer glimpses of what this cultural confusion is like.
But Soul Kitchen is the froth on a cappuccino by comparison. Maybe he took a break from deep melodrama to make it. Maybe the burden of telling the Turkish story is lifting.
And maybe it was time to make a film that was just good entertainment. Take your pick of motives. The watchable result is all that matters.
Kuno Becker, Ruben Blades, Persia White
No modern film I can remember is about poetry. Not the kind you read in high school English class, but the slam poetry that is a form of rap with rhythm but no melody. Spoken Word attempts to supply the melody.
Cruz (Kuno Becker) is a west coast poet living sensually with girl friend Shea (Persia White) and teaching poetry to high school kids. He gets a phone call from New Mexico saying his father (Ruben Blades) is dying of cancer and he must come home.
The film has all the usually suspected traumas of returning home again; including alcohol and drugs. Somehow it all looks like a lot cleaner when you throw the empty bottles against adobe walls that look out over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
What distinguishes Spoken Word is not story words, but poetry words. Cruz speaks them eloquently to articulate his journey. The words belong to the poet Joe Ray Sandoval, who collaborated on the screenplay. But the movie belongs to director Victor Nunez.
He specializes in small stories supplying much feeling but not much conflict. Ulee’s Gold, Ruby in Paradise, and Gal Young ‘Un are other good examples. It is not easy to be the go to filmmaker for offbeat, sentimental subjects and Nunez is kind of the Sundance pro.
Like many Nunez movies, you keep waiting in Spoken Word for something to happen and then realize, at the end, that it already did.The journey is the objective, the poetry is the force, and this small movie is as gold as the honey that Ulee makes it his backyard honeypot.
THE COLOR OF PARADISE
Hossein Mahjoub, Moshen Ramezani
Some movies are so lavish they justify the extravagance of the big flat screen you bought for yourself. Mohammad has been sent to a special school for the blind in the city. He’s nearly abandoned until his widowed father comes to reclaim him and take him home.
Home is a long journey to a simple country life with a grandmother and sisters. Along the way the lavish color and abundance of nature fills all 46 diagonal inches of big screen, making home video a near-theater experience.
Once home in the country, Mohammed (Moshen Ramezani), adapts readily because his cheery personality is accepted by everyone. Only the father has bitter feelings about his life, and his relationship with his son. The boy is a burden in a life that, with the death of his wife, is suddenly without an anchor.
The film culminates in one of the most spectacular river calamity scenes I have ever watched. Perhaps you need to have run rivers to understand what you see cannot be faked. The boy is swept away and the father, after hesitating, jumps in too. The power of the river takes the boy, the father, and the horse and will not release them.
Natural life, like the river, is a vital part of Majidi’s theme that spans movie after movie. He loves to contrast city with country. The elements of country are poverty and human conflict. The complications of the city diffuse these and overlay these with hurdles that are for Majidi films, grave life impediments.
In Children of Heaven (MovieWithMe.com) the father and son must go into the rich part of the city to seek work so they can survive their subsistence life in a poor village at the city’s edge. In The Color of Paradise it is a blind boy leaving the shelter of the city for a bucolic life that is both delightful and lethal. Majidi doesn’t seem to weigh in on the values of city versus country except to point out that the vast difference from one to the other causes much confusion to the human beings who must travel between.
He is at his best with children: pointing up the innocence and tragedy they can exemplify so well. After seeing his films, take a look at Turtles Can Fly (MovieWithMe), another excellent Iranian film about children in Iraqi Kurdistan during the American no fly zone before the start of the Iraqi war.
Kal Penn, Tabu, Jacinda Barrett, Brooke Smith, Irrfan Khan
THE SEA INSIDE
Javier Bardem, Belen Reuda, Lola Duenas, Mabel Rivera
It takes balls for the top leading man of Spain to do a movie in a bald cap. It also takes guts to make a movie that’s never going to be seen on date night. The Sea Inside takes place in a bedroom where Ramon Semperdo (Javier Bardem) has been confined for 30 years since a dive into the ocean left him a quadriplegic (nothing works except his head).
His battle is to die; rather than being served day and night by people who must change his soiled bedclothes every four hours, he wants to end it all. But Spanish law is no more helpful than American law (see the Terri Schiavo case). So he gets himself a smart lawyer who is also living with a degenerative disease, and she starts the court challenge in motion.
You wouldn’t think it would be fascinating to watch someone try to die for two hours and five minutes. In action movies people die in five seconds. The remarkable idea here is to make the movie not about understanding dying, but understanding living. Ramon loves life. But he sees that life is more than dreams, and he dreams a lot. He knows his dreams must satisfy him: he knows they cannot. Hence his life is torture with no end except death.
One of the hottest scenes in the movie is the kiss between him and his lawyer, Julia (Belen Reuda). Yet it never happened. Along the way to death there is a constant parade of people who come to him trying to persuade him that life is worth living because everyone goes through terrible times. What is good for one is not for another, he argues, and all he wants is to make his own decision.
The magic of The Sea Inside is not, for me, about everyone having a different idea of the value of life. It is about the director, Alajandro Amenabar, who made this amazing film. I think he is one of those geniuses of movie making that come along so rarely. His ability to work magic on so many different films is beyond explanation. This guy started with a student film, Tesis, and has never stopped. Take a look at his credits and wonder how he could go from Open Your Eyes (remade badly with Tom Cruise) to The Sea Inside.
Michelle Monaghan, Benjamin Bratt, Nathan Fillion
Michelle Monaghan is Diane, a tough trucker who lives on the road and fucks handsome drivers without leaving her phone number. But somewhere out there beyond the darkness she’s got a kid who she’s left with her ex-husband Len (Benjamin Bratt).
This is a riff on the white line fever picture that has a been a Hollywood staple since They Drive by Night (1940). As soon as I see a kid in a movie with a tough guy or babe, my sentimentality buzzer goes off. You know where it is going the moment Daddy says Mommy has to take the tyke. I reviewed Mostly Martha and No Reservations on MovieWithMe. In those make and remake movies, the woman is a top chef and the kid is the precocious niece whose parents have been conveniently killed in an auto accident.
Trucker at least gives us a tough kid to match his mother’s lifestyle. Though I wish he smoked cigarettes like she does-that would be a cinematic breakthrough. But Tucker is something a little more than its predictable story: it is a road movie about nights and highways and dank motels. This is a genre in itself; always supported by an ample catalogue of country and western songs that reveal emotions big rig drivers never can.
In most countries, guys drive trucks and drink beer. Only in American do they also live in a mythic dimension. (One exception: The Wages of Fear, but that is really an American style movie made by the French). These movies are more than C&W music and lost characters: they are an extension of our western cowboy themes. You can be lonely watching the fire burn down with your horse tethered on the lonely desert: or you can be lonely in the cab of your Kenworth lighting the white line bend around the earth ahead.
WALK ON WATER
Loir Ashkenazi, Knut Berger, Caroline Peters
This Israeli film asks whether there is really a purpose anymore in the Israeli final solution of killing old Nazis. Museums are being built everywhere to chronicle the Nazi’s “Final Solution” to exterminate the Jews, but what about the Israeli’s state sanctioned retribution?
Trained as a hit man whose life is measured in assassinations, Israeli agent Eyal (Loir Ashkenazi, also in Late Marriage on MovieWithMe.com) is ordered to kill an elderly ex Nazi mass murderer “before God does.”
The way to flush this old Black Shirt out of hiding is to get close to his granddaughter and grandson. Pia (Caroline Peters) lives in Israel as a kibbutz worker and maintains close contact with her gay brother, Axel (Knut Berger). Eyal manages to befriend them both. Although his purpose is information, he finds himself drawn into their picnics on the sand and running barefoot.
For I guy who doesn’t even take his socks off between killings, this is a major life change. Little by little, he learns their view of humanity. It offers a reboot of history by seeing a bigger picture than Jews versus Germans.
A song by Esther Ofarim that Axel plays on the car radio while driving Eyal to the family home in Wansee, outside Berlin (coincidentally, the town where the Final Solution was hatched back in 1942), underscores the point of the movie. Ofarim is an Israeli who sings in German. She’s built up a huge following in Germany where her music symbolizes the improbable bond between the two cultures.
He doesn't know they’re driving to attend Axel’s grandfather’s birthday party, where Eyal will get his chance to give the old man a final present from the Mossad: death.
The strength of this movie (mainly in English, with some subtitles for the Hebrew and the German) is two cultures pushed to confrontation: the diabolic Nazi killer and the new assassin under the same roof. The former is a feeble old man. The latter has to confront the question of why he is doing what he is about to do.
Eyal faces a moral quandary he can’t answer. So he drives back into Berlin to talk to his boss. The way back form the western suburbs takes him on Hitler’s first autobahn. (You can’ t make a film in Berlin without running on or over a lot of history). His boss, the Mossad chief, is calling the shots form his hotel room. Eyal suggest they capture the old man and smuggle him to Israel for trial (like the Israeli’s did with Adolf Eichmann decades before). He argues that that it makes no sense to kill an old man who is near death anyway.
“Terminate him before God does,” is the boss’s answer. It is the logic of the efficient and practical assassin with no room for the questions of why.
Eyal drives back to Wansee. “Why” is the question on his brain, and then “how”? While he is pondering, Axel takes the moral high ground and frees Eyal from his dilemma. Meanwhile sister Pia gives the promise throughout the movie that sex is so much better without moral confusion.
Easy for me to see the lighter side of Eytan Fox’s film very rich and thought provoking film; but this doesn’t take away from it being an extremely intelligent, effective, and watchable movie.
WHERE GOD LEFT HIS SHOES
John Leguizamo, Leonor Varepa, David Castro, Samantha M. Rose
In the list of Christmas movies, few end badly. The most popular ever, It’s a Wonderful Life, manages to pull joy from despair in the last reel. But Where God Left His Shoes doesn’t have an uncle Billy to arrive with a basket of money and save the day.
Frank (John Leguizamo) is a down on his luck boxer who finds himself homeless along with his wife and two children. Together they range through a gulag of homeless shelters and welfare centers across New York City while Frank hunts for the elusive job that will qualify his family for subsidized housing. Angela (Leonor Varepa) is his long enduring wife who tries to manage the two kids and bed them down among bums and crazies in bed bugged dormitories.
How do you teach your son values when the world around you has ceased to value you? What do you do when there is no place to sleep? How can you make your pleas heard in a system where everyone else is pleading too?
Frank tells son Justin (David Castro) they are the forgotten. The title refers to the fact that they have been forsaken even by God. He does not dwell in the places they do. You won’t find him leaving his shoes there when he beds down for the night.
This is not a perfect film, and critics have torn it apart for plot problems. The lack of a happy ending also goes against the traditional Christmas movie. We don’t want to be depressed on Christmas any more than we wanted to be depressed on Thanksgiving when Edward R. Murrow presented Harvest of Shame on CBS network, on Thanksgiving weekend 1960.
The Murrow doc followed migrant field workers toiling in the land of plenty and suffering poverty and hopelessness. Like Where God Left His Shoes, Harvest of Shame tried to raise a little indigestion in the stomachs of a nation filled with turkey and stuffing.
The effect of both films has been limited. Harvest of Shame got all the awards but nothing changed for the migrants. Where God Left His Shoes was slammed by the critics, seen by few, and never credited for social issues it raised and the people it profiled.
But its story and subject deserve greater attention. This is also one of the small but growing list of films about the outer boroughs of New York City. Far from the LED lights of Times Square, this is the New York where most of the City’s 20 million people actually live (see also Paraiso Travel on MovieWithMe.com).
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