Roberto's Film Reviews
Roberto: Resident Curmudgeon & Film Buff
As a long time Hollywood producer, I love the internet because there are no rules, no gatekeepers, no stupid executives whose only skill is looking good in a suit. And I love film. The ones that are great, and the ones not-so-great that have moments of inspiration or brilliance. Making a movie is a roll of the dice. Once you have actors and tempers and weather you never know what will happen. The only thing you can be sure of is it will never turn out exactly the way you planned. I salute anyone who tries, and I try to sing the unsung because they too deserve a little glory for attempting the impossible.
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.
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS
Anamaria Marinca, Vlad Ivanov, Laura Vasiliu
1980’s Romania is still under the veil of the Communist regime. A college student sets out to help roommate have an illegal abortion. The state does not allow legal abortions so there is no alternative to renting a hotel room and hiring an abortionist. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is charged with the responsibility of being best friend while Gabita will undergo the dangerous procedure. Otilia is a natural survivor and understands the indifference of the word. Gabita assumes there will always be someone to fight her battles.
The story exposes the end of the stagnant culture of late ’80’s Romania where a political aristocracy is balanced against a vindictive petty bureaucracy. They deserve each other. In a few years all of this will be swept away. But for this time, this moment where a young college student needs and abortion: there is no court of values to hear her.
This is not Gabita’s story, even though it is her pregnancy. It is about Otilia. It is her awakening, just like the country will awake a few years later. In the space of the hours leading up to and after the abortion she will understand there is no place for her. Not with her roommate, nor her fiancee, nor in the system that presses down her every effort to help a friend. In the end, we know she will walk away from everyone she has known.
This is also a film that you would have thought the right-to-lifers would have embraced as their own. No one who sees it can argue for abortion, especially with the site of the fetus sitting on the bathroom floor. Strange that it was not raised on the shoulders of these people, since there has never been, to my knowledge, any statement as powerful for their cause then this one.
A MIGHTY WIND
Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Michael McKean, Bob Balaban, Parker Posey
Can a movie escape the chains of its own maker and soar as something completely different?
A Mighty Wind had that possibility and I wish Christopher Guest had seen the greater opportunity he stumbled upon. Here's the set-up. A famous talent agent for all the great folk song acts of the 1950s and 1960s has died. His son decides to stage a tribute to his father at Town Hall, New York City, featuring all the great groups. Typical of Christopher Guest docs like Best of Show and Waiting For Guffman, this is an easy-to-view mash-up of satire, shtick, and really good stage numbers. This last is always part of Guest's shrewd understanding of his audience. We know we are seeing satire, but we'll only stays attentive as long as it is GOOD satire. That means the tap dancer, or a show dog, or the folk group had better be damn talented. A Mighty Wind may be satirizing old folk groups, but the original music and performance is first rate (one song even won an Oscar). Mitch & Mickey could be based on any number of duos of the era. Played by Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara are the best. Who knew Levy could sing and be a romantic lead? There should be an Oscar for switching personas.Just getting them to see each other again after the painful break-up years before is a triumph of the agent's art. Once they are on stage again, their performance is the showstopper. A Mighty Wind could have been a much mightier wind by pumping the story of these two falling for each other again. They relight the flame in middle age, with gray hair and wrinkles. They leave the rest of the movie behind. Chemistry is the toughest part of casting a movie. It can fool you until you see the film cut together. A Mighty Wind pulls back at the very moment it could have given us more. Very frustrating, but that's what makes the movie making process so fascinating: you never know how it will turn out.
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.
Cecile de France, Patrick Bruel, Ludivine Sangnier, Julie Depardieu, Mathieu Amalric
A coven of Jews keeps the dark secret of the past from a son who is haunted by dreams of a brother he never had. Sounds like a good programmer for Jewish film festivals but is actually a study in desire and lust that is so original it has to be true.
“Based on a true story” is carried in the main titles. How could you make this up? At Maxime’s (Patrick Bruel) marriage to Hannah (Ludivine Sangnier) he is introduced to his wife’s brother’s wife, Tania (Cecile de France). Cecile is a Belgian beauty who would stir anyone’s loins, and indeed, Maxime goes through his wedding night watching her ass across the dance floor.
If you want to see where this actress came from and the range of what she can do, watch L’Auberge Espagnole also on MovieWithMe. She’s an actress with a range far beyond mere seduction.
But in A Secret, that is her role and she’s up for it. Maxime and Tania waltz around each other for several years while Maxime and Hannah produce a perfect son who has all the personality of his mother and all the athletic skill of his father. But Hannah catches on to the heat she’s not part of, and, in suicidal despair, delivers herself and her son into the arms of the Nazis who have conquered France.
Meanwhile Tania’s husband is killed in the war. The last barrier is down and the lovers buzz towards each other like moths to a flame. Their passion produced another son. This one has neither the charm of his mother or the physic of his father. Everybody in the little circle of Jews, that includes neighbor Louise clams up about what happened during the war.
Finally the little boy pieces it all together. The story has the feel of grand opera. Indeed, it would be a good subject. And the movie is less satisfying carrying about the little boy learning of his secret brother than watching the pas de deux of the two lovers circling each other, denying then eyeing, then panting and finally arriving at that luscious moment of sex that would be the opera’s second act curtain. Forget the anemic kid, the lovers are movie enough.
A WOMAN IN BERLIN
Nina Hoss, Yevgeni Sidikhin
Gone With the Wind persists because it is America’s great survival story. A Woman in Berlin is Gone With the Wind without the romance. We’d all like to behave like Scarlet and vow, “As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again.”
But would the music swell and would be feel the same pride in deciding to fuck a Russian officer for a bar of soap and a bath? Germans don’t want to see the truth of war anymore than we do. When the book from which the film is taken was first published it caused such an outrage that it was withdrawn. The author declared it could only be published after her death, and then anonymously.
Anonyma (the name used for Nina Hoss’s unnamed character) is a high-styled photojournalist as World War Two is closing in on Berlin. The Russian are racing in from the East and the city is about to fall. But the music plays on and the dancers do no cease their step until brutality devours them like a beast.
Death in the streets is graphically detailed with drunken Russian soldiers looting and killing. Anonyma and the others are grabbed and raped repeatedly. The lucky ones are left alive and retreat to an empty apartment house where they seek shelter from the chaos outside. Anonyma is pretty enough and lucky enough to catch the eye of a Russian officer. He decides to make her his mistress.
Up to this point we can see Scarlet dressing in her only gown, gratefully accepting the offer of a bar of soap and a bath in exchange for her favors. What happens next is what caused the outrage against the book. She falls in love with him. We all want to be Scarlet, but if she fell in love with a Yankee, audiences would have thrown Coca Cola bottles at the screen.
When her lover receives new orders to leave Berlin, she is left as well. Other women spit at her and shun her as a whore of the conquerors. It has been three-quarters of a century since Margaret Mitchell published her fairy tale about a woman’s survival in the War Between the States. It is time we give up our fairy tales and see the reality of war’s consequences. Survival is not for sissies.
AFTER THE WEDDING
Mads Mikkelsen (Jacob), Rolf Lassgard (Jorgen), Sids Babett Knudsen (Helene)
Melodrama is what hits your tear ducts when you think you’re safe. After The Wedding is a master class in how it works. Melodrama comes from 18th Century narratives that were spoken over musical melodies used to pump up the mood. Sort of like Cialis commercials on TV.
After the Wedding is about a Danish expat who lives in a typical third-world country. He does good work by teaching in a primary school. As the film begins, he contacted by a millionaire back home who is considering giving a giant endowment to the school. The catch: Jacob (the teacher) must appear in person to audition for the funds.
He flies home to Denmark and arrives on the eve of the big weekend wedding of the millionaire’s (Jorgen) daughter. Of course, he is invited. Weddings and funerals are always fun occasions for a movie, and Susanne Bier knows how to take us down the aisle. Jacob’s first surprise is meeting Jorgen’s wife, Helene. He dated her! Then he meets her daughter, the bride. And the he finds out Helene was pregnant when they split up! His daughter is getting married! (Exclamation points to seem cool and hide my own embarrassment at being hooked on the story).
The whole film reminds me of two screenwriters telling stories in a bar saying, “Can you top this one?” But it works. These actors earn their pay. Jacob and Helene still have passion in their eyes and in their body language. When we learn that Jorgen is conveniently dying of an incurable disease, it all makes movie sense.
Susan Bier went on to make Things We Lost in the Fire, which starts with a funeral. Weddings and funerals and recitativo singers playing to a courtly audience are all fertile furrows where drama nurtured by melody sprouts melodrama. Forget the negative soap opera connotation of the word. Susanne Bier and an excellent cast make After The Wedding worth our hope and tears as two lovers finally find each other.
Yael Abecassis, Amos Lavie, Uri Ran Klauzner, Ronit Elkabetz, Hana Laszlo
Put a dozen Jews in an apartment building in Tel Aviv and no one will set foot in it except the tenants. Hezi (Amos Lavie) is the secretive lover who rents an apartment for his mistress, Gabi (Yael Abescassis). Ezra (Uri Ran Klauzner) is the constructions boss building an addition under the instruction of Ronit (Ronit Elkabetz), who turns out to be a policewoman. Mali (Hana Laszlo) is Ezra’s ex-wife Gabi’s friend and confident. She lives downstairs with her new lover and Ezra’s son who is AWOL from the Israel Army. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz on who is who.
Add to this stew a few elderly residents bordering on dementia and a dog. The action centers on the lovers, because Gabi is a screamer during sex. Hezi is paranoid about being discovered by his wife, so he tries to silence her with a hand over her mouth. But the dog hears her anyway and starts barking.
When the police come to hunt down Ezra and Mali’s son who has disappeared from his Army unit, they notice Ezra’s work crew is all illegal Chinese immigrants.
So while his son has vanished into the streets where the cop warns, “he could be the victim of terrorists,” Ezra is hauled off to the police station handcuffed to one of his Chinese laborers.
But the police sergeant turns out to be Ronit, his customer in the apartment house who is supervising the renovations. She lets him off with the warning, “Give me a good price.” (also see her in Late Marriage, on Movie With Me. You would hardly recognize her from Late Marriage to Alila).
Many directors have done apartment house or neighborhood street movies. Alex de la Iglesia’s La Comunidad (Movie with Me) and Jorge Fons’ Midaq Alley (aka: El Callejon de los Milagros) are two. One house of assorted crazies and con artists and lovers is a perfect place for intense character relationships. In Israel, as Ezra says, “Everyone is out for themselves.” This is true outside of Israel, but here it exists with the background of terrorism and suicide bombings.
Gitai is a great observer of human vulnerability in all his films. It is his calling card. Don’t come to a Gitai movie for past pacing and action. The rewards, like a leisurely read of a juicy novel, are always pleasurable but you need have the time to savor them.
BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL-N...
Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Fairuza Balk
This film turns its genre upside down and spits on it. It does for police crime stories what Cat Ballou (1965) did for westerns. From singing iguanas to philosophical drug kings to a hero with a bad back and a roaring coke habit; it has it all.
The tone, story, and intentions are all very different from Abel Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant movie (1992). All that is preserved is Cage’s interpretation of Harvey Keitel’s famous blowjob scene in his patrol car (now a stand up fuck in a parking lot).
At the center of this amazing maelstrom is Nick Cage in a role he was born to play. Not since Honeymoon in Las Vegas (1992) has he worn a suit that fits so well. In Vegas it was a flying Elvis suit. In Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans it is a light tan stoop-shouldered business suit that looks bought off the rack at Syms. He’s permanently bent over by a bad back and an equally oppressive cocaine habit. His snort and chase method of getting the bad guys is fascinating to watch.
His girlfriend, Frankie, is Eva Mendes. She has trouble wearing anything that is not sexy. But then, she’s a prostitute and her clothes are her uniform. Steve, (Val Kilmer) is Terence’s (Cage’s) better-looking cop partner who always manages to look cool while Terence looks more and more manic.
The plot makes no difference because writer William Finkelstein has written so many TV crime show episodes he can name the scene by its button line (that wrap-up line when movie and TV cops leave the room or get out of the car or walk away from the cemetery).
Werner Herzog is no stranger to obsessed characters. Fitzcarraldo is his masterpiece, and My Best Fiend is his doc that probes the dark soul of Klaus Kinski. Cage gets the Kinski prize in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans.
Kinski is dead but we’ve still got Cage to play splendidly insane characters. Too bad he also keeps doing dumb movies where he is tries to be sensitive.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans failed at the box office. It was mistakenly sold as a crime story and nobody screamed loud enough to viewers that it was a truly original and totally inventive genre-busting black comedy.
Hopefully it will become a cult on Netflix streaming. It would make a great evening with The Big Lebowski as a double feature.
I hope God keeps a credit list where there are special awards of merit for Cage, Herzog, and Finkelstein. Would be nice if Eva Mendes and Fairuza Balk (Heidi here, but amazing since her first appearance in Gas, Food, and Lodging) are included as honorable mentions. In fact, there’s not a single actor in this whole cast who isn’t pretty amazing.
Oshri Cohen, Eli Eltonyo, Italy Tiran, Ohad Knoller
Beaufort is a ghost story without ghosts. This ancient mountain fortress, straddling a strategic valley in southern Lebanon once sheltered the Crusaders. Now Israeli soldiers huddle within its cold walls; about to be the next ghosts of the fort’s history.
Armies have come and gone, each using fortress Beaufort for the same purpose: to block movements of armies below. The Crusades are an unlikely metaphor for the last withdrawal of IDF (Israeli Defense Force) troops at the close of the Israel’s Lebanon adventure in 2000. But the grim pile of stones these men are leaving has a history of a thousand years before Israel and Hezbollah took up positions.
Liraz (Oshri Cohen) commands his unit of bored, frightened, and brave soldiers waiting out the days and hoping they are not the last to be killed by roadside bombs or daily rocket attacks. Each day his men dive for cover, each night they run for their lives at the real or imagined sounds of the enemy crawling up beyond the walls.
Why they are here, why they were ever here? This is the question the film asks. Like Waltz with Bashir (MovieWithMe), Beaufort looks at the Israeli incursions into Lebanon as an exercise in nihilism. What good came of it, what good can come of it? The politics of conquest always way the heaviest on the conqueror; momentary solutions are rarely history’s solution.
If you make war on Hezbollah to control the politics of Lebanon, what is the message to Hamas in Gaza? And if you build a wall around the West Bank of Palestine to shut out suicide bombers, does it shut in hate? Like the French in World War One, the Israelis seem to build one Maginot Line after another, and each fails before the concrete is dry.
All the men defending Beaufort are young; all yearn for home. All have long since given up hope of understanding the events that are killing them. In the last scene, the commander of Beaufort, now safely back behind the gate that separates Lebanon from his Israel, kneels on the ground and spreads his arms. He is home at last. But then, what makes it home? The gate?
The release from the nightmare of Beaufort? Or is the last scene only the first of another story now being told that includes the youth uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Iran? And when will it be Israel’s time to try another turn towards its enemies, or continue building the country into its own Beaufort, stone by stone?
BEST IN SHOW
Parker Posey, Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Bob Balaban, Christopher Guest, Ed Begley, jr.
BONJOUR MONSIEUR SHLOMI
Oshri Cohen, Aya Steinovitz Koren, Arieh Elias, Esti Zakheim
Antonio Resines, Jose Coronado, Goya Toledo, Felix Alvarez, Dafne Fernandez
Can you believe a bank manager as the hero of an action crime film? Remember this was 2002 and bankers hadn’t yet become villains. His daughter has been burned to death in a suspicious forest fire in primo tourist area of the Spanish coast.
An unrelated bank robbery at his branch turns up a mysterious map of the same forest area when one of the safe deposit boxes is rifled. The only problem with this otherwise gripping, original, and character filled thriller is the confusion between two safe deposit boxes that both seem to contain clues. Kind of The Wrong Box though this has nothing to do with that comedy and is not even a comedy.
If you can get buy this plot confusion that took me two fast-backwards of the DVD to understand ( that is, to understand that I would never understand); the rest of the film is gripping. The banker wants to find the truth about the death of his daughter. An ex-cop on the take wants to blackmail those who can deliver enough money to send him and his alcoholic wife out of the country for a better life.
The two plots and the two guys are going to meet somewhere (see the clip) and nobody is going to be happy with the outcome. The film is fascinating: full of great characters played by great character actors. They always pulling you forward to the next scene. Americans don’t get to see many European action films. They don’t come to art theaters where the crowds wants picture postcard views of Europe, and they never come to multiplexes where the audience can’t even read the subtitles
So this is a rare opportunity to see a really good European action movie (if you can forgive the story sloppiness about the two safe deposit boxes). It is also a deliciously violent film, assuming you like guys getting shot in the back of the head. I do.
Tannishtha Chatterjee, Sastish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson
Ulrich Thomsen, Connie Nielsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas (see usa cast in review)
Make and remake: two verisons.
Brothers (two versions). USA version 2009 105.min, dir: Jim Sheridan, cast: Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal).
The most amazing fact about Brothers is that it was made twice. Once might have been more than enough. There is an old Hollywood story about the producer and the writer alone in the desert dying of thirst. They spot a cold clear jar of water. The writer says, ‘Shall we drink it?’ The producer says, “let's piss in it first.”
Susanne Bier’s Brothers is a modest movie about the romantic yearnings of two people when one happens to be the brother of the other’s husband. The husband has conveniently been declared dead on an Afghani war mission. But he is really being held captive and we know he will return.
It’s a good movie (which is why it is included in MovieWithMe, we only review the ones we like). But it is plot driven rather than character driven. Things have to happen to push it forward, and the audience knows where it is headed. Plot driven movies are like building a fence around the property and thinking what kind of house you will put in the middle.
Taking this modest house and remodeling it so Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Natalie Portman can live in it ruins the architecture. To begin with, Tobey Maguire has no sex appeal. The Muppet of Spiderman is not a leading man. Natalie Portman has some heat with Jake Gyllenhaal, so did she marry Tobey?
Jim Sheridan is a very talented director, up there with Susanne Bier in all respects except one: he’s working from a script that has been remodeled like the house to suit the new star tenants. No subtlety is allowed. Many of the scenes are exactly alike, but the remake doesn’t play like the original. When the military messengers come to inform the wife that her husband is dead, Susanne Bier gets to do it almost without dialogue.
Jim Sheridan’s version is more concerned with the two cute, precocious little girls who open the door for the soldiers. Everybody has to talk and explain. I guess the producers wanted to make sure they milked every emotion from wife to children. Did I say milk? I started this review talking about a joke with water. Choose your liquid but don’t drink the remake. Somebody has pissed in it.
Barbara Lombardo, Susana Campos
You are 15 (but actually 16), when a judge takes you away from your parents, who are not your parents, and sends you to live with the grandmother you have never met.
There have been many films about ” the disappeared” in Argentina. From 1976 to 1983, the military dictatorship waged a campaign of terror against any suspected dissident. People were taken from their beds in the middle of the night and thrown into secret prisons to be tortured and killed. One of the best films, and earliest, was The Official Story (1985). In The Official Story, a couple adopt a baby and the wife grows suspicious and goes in search of the real mother.
The point of view of Cautiva is the opposite: that of the child. Cristina, or Sophia as her mother called her at birth, is swept up and displaced not in the era of the disappeared, but in the era of the found.
She lives a normal middle-class life with her parents until she is hustled out of school one day and taken to confront a judge who informs her that her parents are not hers, her name is not hers, and the people she must go to live with are relatives of her real parents who disappeared back in 1978.
The focus of Cautiva is unearthing the history of that period through the eyes of an innocent who is both hurt by it and changed by it. Through a girlfriend who has experienced a similar shock, Cristina learns about her mother, about the moment of her birth, and about the way she was taken, as a day old infant, from her mother; who was then killed.
Floating through the story like an evil apparition is Henry Kissinger, the American political front man who not only worked with the dirty regime in Argentina but also showed up for the 1978 world cup soccer match as an invited guest of the dictators. The film seems to imply that America has no cleaner hands than the ruling generals.
And so it may be. But the focus here is on Cristina and the very troubled life of a teenager learning she is not the child of her parents. This is both the dream and the nightmare of every child. Here Cristina’s nightmare finally becomes her salvation as she learns to live with the truth.
Michael Fassbender, Olga Kurylenko, Imogen Poots
Running movies never run out of breath. The curious question with Michael Fassbdender is: after revealing the super size of his penis in Shame, how he can run at all?
Centurion takes us to Britain in about 100 AD where the Romans have met their Afghanistan. Their idea was to bring civilization to the wild country up north; but it has pretty much failed. Picts and Brigantes roam the Highlands picking off the Romans with what will, a few thousand years later, be called guerilla warfare.
All of this really doesn’t matter much in a Neil Marshall movie (Descent, Dog Soldiers). The important concept in any running movie is to get them running. The best stripped down example is Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey.
Cornel (Kornel Lajos Weisz: nobody is born with a name like Cornel Wilde) is leading a hunting party into darkest Africa when they violate some tribal rules of hospitality. All the white men are captured and roasted alive or worse.
But they’ve got another game for Cornel. They strip him naked, set him running, and send the warriors after him to kill him. That’s the whole move, and it’s actually excellent.
In Centurion, the Roman 9th legion is destroyed in a battle with the Picts when their Brigantian scout, lovely Etain (former James Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), turns out to be working for the Picts. The Roman general is captured while a handful of dazed soldiers surreptitiously crawl out from under the dead.
They go to the Pict camp to save the general, but end up killing the chieftain’s little son. He’s so upset that he has Etain duel it out with the general and kill him. Next he sends his warriors out to slash down Quintas Dias (Michael Fassbender) and his gang.
They keep running until they meet Arianne (Imogen Poots) who is so beautiful it is worth staying a while. She’s an outcast accused of witchcraft and takes a liking to Quintas (although it may be she likes the part of him he’ll reveal in Shame).
He leaves her to run into Hadrian’s Wall (under construction at the time). He’s a liability to the Romans because he knows they are losing. General Hadrian has his daughter try to kill him (women are the master assassins in this movie). Quintas runs away and joins Arianne in her clay and wattle hovel. He’s going to hang up his Nikes and stay put for a while.
Don’tt expect to learn much about Roman history in Centurion, or to understand why all the Roman’s speak good British English and all the Picts use subtitles. Just enjoy the jog.
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.
CHRONICLE OF AN ESCAPE
Israel Adrian Caetano
Rodrigo de la Serna, Nazareno Casero, Lautaro Delgado, Matias Marmorato
Why does torture inflame our imagination in ways love never does? Thanks to a 1976 coup by its military leaders, little Argentina is up there with Nazi Germany in the torture Olympics.
Of course the number of Argentine films about this era is nowhere near the number about Nazi Germany, but they are all first rate.
Chronicle of an Escape (also called Cronica de Una Fuga and Buenos Aires 1977) is up there with the best about this purge like The Official Story, Garage Olimpo, and The Secret in their Eyes. Based on true stories told by the victims, this film is the story of a group of young men held in an old mansion in the suburbs of Buenos Aires and subjected to endless torture until they managed a daring escape.
At one point the lead torturer remarks, “This is how the FBI started.” Not exactly correct, but the resemblance to CIA black prisons is very clear. The “Dirty War” in Argentina went on from 1976 to 1983. It was methodical, government sponsored violence and torture to rid Argentina of any leftist or Communist elements. And estimated 13000 people were killed.
A favorite way to dispatch prisoners was to drug them, put them on airplanes, and dump them from altitude into the sea (see Garage Olimpo).
So why is it we love torture movies? Because sadists are so much more imaginative than nice people. One of the coolest scenes in Chronicle of an Escape is stripping the prisoners naked, chaining them to their beds, standing on top of them while moping them with disinfectant. Who could invent stuff like this but a gifted sadist?
This kind of fun didn’t stop until the military government overstepped its limits and invaded the Falkland Islands. The British promptly responded, drove out the peasant soldiers and their portenos leaders, and reduced their army to scrap metal.
Ursula Werner, Horst Rehberg, Horst Westphal, Steffi Kuhnert
Cloud 9 explores all the feelings, all the love, all the passion, all the nudity we think of as the province of young love. Only these lovers are in their late sixties and seventies.
Urula Werner plays Inge, the woman who leaves. She’s been a film actress since 1960 but it takes more than courage to take off all our clothes and do nude love scenes at the age of (approx)64.
She lives a quiet life with her husband, Werner (Horst Rehberg). She sings in the church choir, entertains her grand children, and takes in sewing. The sewing is her undoing. Taking a pair of altered trousers to Karl’s (Horst Westphal’s) apartment for a fitting, she finds her self in a passionate kiss. In a minute she’s slipped of her own panties and is heaving away in bed with him.
The scene is one we’ve seen in countless young love movies. Two lovers impetuously drawn to each other by animal magnetism who toss away all caution with their clothes. But watching it with sixty and seventy year olds is, at first, shocking. They have lust on their faces but their bodies don’ give that satisfying voyeurism we’ve come to expect of young skin.
The ringmaster of this tender, personal film is Andreas Dresen. His interest in character stories and intimate relationship is his brand. Grill Point (2002) is another good example. Dresen is an Ossi, or “Easterner.” This is the derogatory German term for people who came from Eastern Germany before unification. In the eyes of a Wessi they are a less polished, less sophisticated.
So it is with Dresen’s wonderful characters. In Grill Point they were married couples having affairs with each other’s spouses. The action was set in a small East German town where nightlife centers around the snack bar set up in the town park. Cloud 9 seems to be set in a Berlin suburb. We can see the red and yellow cars of the S-Bahn commuter trains whirr past Inge’s back yard; we catch a glimpse or two of a vertical city in the distance. But the Berlin of Cloud 9 is a small town of railway backyards, tree-lined streets of apartments, church socials and family picnics.
Cloud 9 doesn’t have a silver lining. The consequences of elder love are different from those of young love. There is no time lift for heart mending. When Inge moves out, Werner is left with no future. Her happiness with Karl is short-lived. Or is it? The movie takes us only as far as her new life and new pain. Dresen should do a follow up with Cloud 10.
CONVERSACIONES CON MAMA
Santiago Carlos Oves
China Zorilla, Eduardo Blanco, Ulises Dumont
If you watch enough Argentinean movies you realize they use a small group of players. That’s not surprising. But they are all so good! If there was a Walk of Fame in Buenos Aires, China Zorilla’s star would be outside the top tango club. She started as a dancer, became a comedienne, and then a very accomplished actress.
Elsa & Fred is reviewed on MovieWithMe.com. In Conversacions con Mama (look it up on Netflix under this Spanish title or you won’t find it) she plays a widowed 82-year-old woman whose 50-year-old son loses his job and wants to move himself and his wife into her apartment.
Not a lot to ask of mama. But in his conversation with her he finds out she is not alone. She has a 69-year-old lover whom she caught eating the food she leaves outside her door for stray cats. One thing led to another and she invited him in.
What is wonderful about China is that she exudes energy at any age. In Elsa & Fred she bounds out of a fancy restaurant leaving the check. In Conversacions she has no qualms about taking in a homeless lover. He may be coming for the food but, she hints with her smile, the real feast is in the bedroom.
There are people in the world who worry their way through life, and people who live moment to moment. The latter have a gift to give us all; even if it is only acting.
Brett Spackman, Brian Petersen, Carley Adams, Marina Valle
Thousands try to run across the Mexican border every month and pay good money for the chance. Why does all the profit go to smugglers who can’t even pronounce, “Maximize revenue?”This is an opportunity for American businessmen to turn misery into money.
Coyote’s wicked premise is that two erstwhile entrepreneurs do just that. Several veterans of the Napoleon Dynamite team re-assemble for this effort. But the picture belongs to Brett Spackman, who plays J, the half-Mexican smuggler-in-chief.
What is so delicious is typical American business acumen focused on human smuggling across the border. The first step is to study methods and logistics. Next comes a glossy brochure featuring three kinds of service: bronze, silver and gold. The gold promises to get you across, deliver you to a destination of your choice, and even get you a job.
Most clients settle for the bronze. At least until reigning Mexican coyote king, Senior Juarez, senses these gringos are muscling in on his cartel’s business. Then the business plan sees some major faults: death threats. Spackman (playing J.) is the success story of the partnership because he finds love south of the border.
This is the same Brad Speckman who directed and participated in the short doc, Run to Jays: Tournament of Champions. The premise is an annual foot race risking death against on-coming traffic to win a 20oz bottle of soda. The artistic leap from that film to this one is a mere hop.
The style of Coyote is somewhere between satire and whacky college humor. Not a bad combo. The same team made Think Tank; where they save a small town through their genius at being inept. (see Christopher Null’s review at filmcritic.com. He obviously had not smoked enough when he saw Think Tank).
They are better at thinking up original ideas then sustaining either movie; but both movies are fresh and are the budgets low. What has happened to these guys? Their online profiles are almost blank. Tough to get any respect when you make low budget comedies. Maybe they should make original web movies and charge a buck? I would pay (I think). Certainly they’re better than the endless date comedies Hollywood thinks are funny.
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.
Federico Luppi, Elena Basslesteros, Paulina Galvez, Gaston Pauls
A Spanish production by a Chilean novel might not qualify as a Chilean film, but is it Spanish? I'm calling it Chilean here for the setting and sensibility. Bad trailers that feature nothing but nudity and violence, and mindless title translations into English-are no surprise. But you would think someone would have found a better English language title for this very good movie. In Spanish it is called El Lugar Donde Estuvo el Paraiso. Translation: The Place that Was Paradise.
That’s how it is listed in the IMDb database. What moron decided the English language DVD title should be Dictadura? Couldn’t anyone at Venevision come up with an English word for the title? Luckily, the story is a lot less confusing than the title.
The dictator refers to a Consul stationed somewhere in the Amazonian jungle. His daughter, Ana, who he hasn’t seen in many years, flies in for an unexpected visit and gets a taste of the politics, dirty dealing and bribes that keep her father afloat. Then she meets Julia, her father’s young mistress, and watches them make love.
This show is interrupted by Enrico, a bush pilot who has settled in as a houseguest. He’s terribly sexy, and very dangerous. As Julia warns Ana at breakfast the next morning, “stay away from Enrico, believe me, it is a bad idea.” (We later learn he deals drugs). Ana retorts, “Maybe one man in bed isn’t enough for you.”
The women are almost the same age, allowing the story turn on the conflict between them. Julia, whom the Consul picked up in a chorus line, is a survivor protecting her own turf. “Look Ana, I was raised in misery. I’m not educated like you and I’ve never traveled.” Ana is the protected city girl afraid to eat a piranha for breakfast. The film is her coming of age through seeing her father as he is, not as she imagined.
This could easily be a telenovela. But good casting and the humid lushness of the Amazon make it a woman’s adventure into another world, another life. Too bad it’s lost between two titles. IMDb should change its search to show both.
DISTRICT 13: ULTIMATUM
David Belle, Cyril Raffaelli, Elodie Yung
Inside District 13 life seems a lot livelier than outside. Do we want to get in more than they want to get out? The answer says where the world has gone between the 2004 movie and the 2009 sequel.
What would it be like to see the two District 13 movies twenty-five year from now? Would a police state look nicer? The stunts and fights might be retro, but the reaction to the social and political history might surprise us.
For those not up on French action movies, District B13 (2004, and on Movie With Me), and District 13 Ultimatum share a premise: crime among the Arab and black immigrants of suburban Paris has gotten so out of control the police have sealed off the borders. The residents are on their own.
In 2004 this theory of walling off war zones was in vogue. Read what the Americans did in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. By 2009 the seepage of polyglot culture into the main stream confused all boundaries. Music and models are a good place to start. Is there any part of music that can claim even a home base in one country or culture? Fashion models are exotic because they where burkas or tattoos.
So it is much tougher to see the world of Damien the cop (Cyril Raffaelli) and Leito the wily immigrant (David Belle) as polar opposites. Luc Besson hints at this in his screenplay by making the bad guys international developers, led by a company called ”Harriburton,” who want to blow up District 13 and make it into an Ivry-sur-Seine (a modern planned community east of Paris where architects and accountants live).
The message is not only that the residents of District 13 are being screwed, but also what they have is more exciting than the planned community that will replace it.
Not that District 13: Ultimatum skimps on the stunts and the chases. Besides David Belle’s amazing escape scene above the rooftops of District 13 (an homage to the first movie), this one’s got car chases through the corridors of the Prefect de Police, and to beat all: Elodie Yung as Tao, the tattooed nearly bare breasted seductress who lets down her hair and uses the imbedded blade as a bola to slice the bad guys. Wow.
Penelope Cruz, Sergio Castellitto, Claudia Gerini
When a leading man directs, writes, and stars in his own movie the title should be “watch out.” But seducing Penelope Cruz to be your co-star counts for a lot, because you know she’ll upstage you.
Sergio is always wonderful and sympathetic. See him as Mario, the Italian sous chef and lover in Mostly Martha on MovieWithMe.com. Here he is as compassionate surgeon whose daughter is hovering between life and death in the adjacent operating room. While he paces, he reviews his life.
Well, not really his life, but his romantic life. There’s the daughter, and then there is the child he almost had with the untamed feral woman he really loved. Who could play that part? This gets to the real value of this movie: watching Penelope Cruz in yet another role where she manages to fill the screen with lips so wide they could swallow all of Italy.
Sergio is a movie star, and this is supposed to be HIS movie. But Penelope steals the show from the moment she appears. Someday someone will write an art book called “The Many Faces of Penelope,” showing how she moves from film to film making her hair, face and body into fine sculptured art. From Jamon Jamon to Open Your Eyes, to All About My Mother to Volver to Vicky Cristina Barcelona she is always a different Penelope. In Volver she even hoisted a fake ass to give herself the curves of a peasant woman. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona she perfected the slut look to bring life and energy of a movie even Javier Bardem couldn’t save.
Don’t Move is yet another look at those lips and those eyes. Even without makeup (or not much, at least) when she is dying, she looks damn good. (To be fair, it is a different face without the usual eye shadow. Eye shadow is to her eyes what flame racing stripes are to hot rods).
Don’t Move is her film, even though Sergio stars, directs, and wrote. Tough to go to the premiere of your own movie and see all the eyes turn and all the lips move to cheer someone else. But then, what lips, what eyes.
Bruno Ganz, Juliane Kohler
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.
ELSA & FRED
Manuel Alexandre, China Zorrilla
Manuel Alexandre has played roles in more films and TV shows than most small countries ever produce. He’s a serious movie actor. China Zorilla is a stage actor in comedies. Can a love story star a comedienne? Put them together and you have a pretty amazing pair, especially since China didn’t do her first film until age fifty.
78 year-old Fred, a widower, moves in across the hall from Elsa. She tells him about her life but it isn’t true. This woman wraps beautiful lies the way most people wrap Christmas presents. But she’s charming. You could put Elsa in a stalled elevator and she’d make friends with everyone in the car. What she doesn’t have is much time.
She’s suffering from-does it make a difference? It’s her secret. It’s going to kill her soon, so her fling with Fred is the last round. She leads him through adventures only a daring twenty-year old would try. My favorite is ordering a meal at the most expensive restaurant in town and then bolting the check. Who would suspect a grandma and grandpa doing their arthritic walk for the door were actually running for it?
Elsa has one last wish to top them all. She wants to go to Rome and jump in the Trevi fountain, just like Anita Ekberg did in La Dolce Vita (she was likened to Ekberg when she was young). The life force of Elsa’s character makes this movie.Â When Fred finally meets her ex-husband who she claimed was dead, he asks if he would do it again, given all he went through with her. The husband doesn’t hesitate. He says it was a wonderful ride, and she is an original. So is Elsa & Fred.
EN LA CAMA
Blanca Lewin, Gonzalo Valenzuela
Two strangers meet at a party and spend the night in a cheap motel room, but what happens is anything but cheap. This amazing film never goes flaccid while exploring the deepening relationship between Daniela (Blanca Lewin) and Bruno (Gonzalo Valenzuela).
Movies like this are not new. Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow did it in John and Mary (1969). What is new is Julio Rojas always surprising screenplay that keeps changes topics in an every deepening quest. Two people go from causal sex to true need and understanding. They carry secrets in their wallets that each, in turn, sneaks a look at, but never admits to the other. It is what must be confessed between hotter and hotter sex and frantic pillow fights.
Blanca Lewin comes from a long history of soap operas and television series. Gonzalo Valenzuela comes from telenovelas; the TV serials that are a staple of Latin countries. In a country like Chile, without much movie production, TV is the way to work as an actor. It carries none of the stigma attached to TV roles in the United Sates.
If either of these actors were part of a bigger culture, they would be international stars. Blanca would vie for the Paz Vega roles, and Gonzalo might be a rival of Gael Bernal Garcia. (Gonzalo’s sister Luz Francisca Valenzuela was Miss Chile in the Miss Universe contest in 1996 but she lost to Miss Venezuela).
If you want to see what a director, writer, and two good actors can do with one set, hot sex, nudity, and penetrating character portraits: this is for you. It also makes you wonder why the porn industry never thought of hiring good directors, writers, and actors to elevate their product. If they had, they would have survived the onslaught of online amateurs that killed their biz. It’s all about haste versus taste: or porn versus art.
Gloria La Morte
Paola Mendoza, Sebastian Villada, Laura Montana
If you are Latin, the proving ground for human strength is not Columbia or Mexico, it is Queens. At least according to several recent films set in the borough. Entre Nos joins Paraiso Travel and Where God Left his Shoes (both on Movie With Me) as a gritty emotional movie about tough life and tough love on the streets off Roosevelt Avenue.
Laura Montana (as Mariana) stars in her own story, which she dedicates to her mother. Her husband leaves at the beginning of the movie and she is penniless with two children. The downward progression to homelessness doesn’t take very long and the family is reduced to collecting cans from garbage to sell for food.
Montana’s own story is not so different. Her Colombian mother brought her up on the streets of LA until she became a teenage gang member.Then she was shipped back to Colombia to live with an aunt. It was there, she says, that she learned that life was more than survival. She came back to LA and went to UCLA film school. That led to a part in a student movie that led to a major role in Sangre de mi Sangre (2007). That film is set in Brooklyn.
Entre Nos is remarkable that it got made at all. Small films like this are only possible because of filmmakers who burn to tell human stories. Laura Montana says in a YouTube Interview that her film is about survival and coming of age: first for the woman she plays, then for her son (Sebastian Villada). “We’re told time and again stories of white males, but weâ€™re not told stories of complex people of color…and I thought instead of complaining about it I was going to do something about it and I started writing.”
The result is effecting, personal, and original.
Maria Heiskanen, Mikael Persbrandt, Jesper Christensen, Callin Ohrvall
The passing of any technology leaves a mystery we do not question. Canals became railroads. Carriages became autos. Sewing machines became lazar stitchers. Photography becames digital imaging. Everlasting Moments is a time capsule for the magic age of film cameras.
Jan Troell creates a time of wonder where a simple black and white photo could release humans from the drudgery of their lives and lets them dream. Maria (Maria Heiskanen) is the working class wife of the drunken, brutish, but charming Sigge (Mikael Persbandt). Continually pregnant, working every waking hour as a seamstress, she finds a long forgotten camera tucked in a drawer. Her first instinct is to sell it.
But Sebastian (,Jesper Christensen), the romantic who runs the photography store, suggests that she first try taking some picture. Maria's fascination starts when Sebastian takes the camera lens and focuses the flutter of a butterfly on her hand. He introduces her the solemnity of the darkroom, and supplies her with film chemicals to try it for herself.
The yearning for passion in these two is redirected to their silent, side-by-side witness of the alchemy of the developer's potion. The red darkroom light casts a sensual glow over them as they watch images emerge from nowhere.It is these scenes, and the simple, artful pictures from Maria's camera that explain the mystery of film and photograph.
No historical treatise, no factual documentary can ever get as close as Everlasting Moments to giving us a sense of what it was like to experience technology past. And no modern photographer working with digital cameras and printers can understand the delight of those silent, dark hours alone in a small red-lit room with smelly chemicals and a pair of tongs.The only sound in the darkroom is the rhythm of the rocking tray as developer sloshes back and forth over a piece of paper. Whiffs of black began to darken into clouds and then become a face, a tree, a cat: a special moment of life memory. These are the Everlasting Moments.
Giovanna Mezzogiomo, Massimo Girotti, Raoul Bova, Flippo Nigro, Serra Yimaz
Most of us are secret voyeurs when it comes to watching the action in the window across the street, but do we ever think they are watching us just as intensely? A dull marriage is the best reason to take a look at the hunk in the apartment across the way while peeling onions. When Giovanna finally meets him and sees the view from his apartment, she understands his fascination for her too.
Let’s backtrack. Giovanna is played by Giovanna Mezzogiomo, daughter of the famous Italian director Vittorio Mezzogiomo and the actress, Cecilia Sacchi. She’s beautiful, luscious, sexy, and totally not working class. So you’ve got to separate this film into parts to appreciate it. The lustful part about a woman fantasizing about an affair with the neighbor across the courtyard, and his fantasy of her: is imaginative an titillating. The rest is problematic (that’s a nice way of saying not quite believable).
Feeling overwhelmed and stuck in a dull marriage, Giovanna begins refocusing her attention (or repressing her emotions) by caring for the Jewish Holocaust survivor her husband brings home one day. As Giovanna reflects on her life, she turns to the man who lives across from her and whose window faces hers.
Giovanna is married to Flippo, a truck driver on the night shift. She hates her life as an accountant in a chicken killing plant, and she has no passion for her husband. This is even more true after he picks up an old man (Massimo Girotti) wandering in the street one day who claims he can not remember who he is. Later we learn he is a famous pastry chef, and a holocaust survivor who lost his only true love (male) to the Nazis.
Why he keeps up the ruse of not remembering and how it leads into Giovanna trusting him as a substitute for the parent she never had is a mystery the screenwriter has not solved. Mr. Pastry also gives her guidance in her marriage (she is about to have an affair with Lorenzo, the man who lives across from her kitchen window and she is obsessed with watching), and her career (he shows her how to make great pastry and urges her to find herself.)
She makes pastry and plans the affair with Lorenzo. All goes well until she sees the view of her life from HIS window, where he has been obsessed with watching her too. Now she must choose between the lover (who is conveniently about to move away and invites her along) and the life of a chicken plucker accountant. I won’t give away the ending.
Amazingly, you forgive the inconsistencies and conveniences in the plot because Giovanna is so interesting to watch and her story, a woman’s story, seems to resonate so universally.
FLAME AND CITRON
Ole Christian Madsen
Thure Lindhardt, Mads Mikkelsen, Stine Stengade, Christian Berkel, Peter Mygind
Director Ole Christian Masden is three years younger than Quentin Tarantino (1966 vs 1963), but their views on World War Two are both revisionist history. Flame and Citron is pure film noir, while Inglorious Bastards gallops in episodic bursts as an action shoot-em-up. Inglourius Flames might be the name of a great compression sequel.
But Tarentino’s resistance fighters are pure invention while Masden’s Flame and Citron actually existed. They were part of the Danish underground, the Holger Danske, that was formed to counter the happy welcome most Danes gave the German invaders. The Holger Danske kept up sabotage and assassinations until the end of the war. The Mindelunden memorial in Copenhagen is dedicated to 64 who were killed during the War, including Flame and Citron.
Masden’s film, one of the most expensive Danish movies ever, is actually quite close to actual history; at least once you remove the movie swagger of both characters and the three-day beard Mads Mikkelsen (Citron) always keeps carefully to length. I don’t think face stubble became stylish until the mid-eighties. In the era of World War Two, men felt lucky to have a clean shave each day.
As for attention to other facts: one of the most improbably sequences in the film actually happened. The real Flammen and Citron were arrested trying to penetrate German headquarters disguised as Danish police offices. It turns out on that day the Germans ordered the arrest of the entire Danish police force, whom they suspected of collusion with the resistance. The real Citron actually did try to escape over a wall and was shot (as in the movie) and was saved by the ambulance crew that took him away. The real Flame walked away in the confusion and escaped.
There was also a real resistance leader named Winther (Peter Mygind). Hoffman (Christian Berkel) was the head of the Gestapo in Denmark. There was a Ketty (Stine Stengade) but her film personality and love affairs is mostly fiction. Every film noir needs a femme fatale.
Flame was Bent Faurschou-Hviid, who had red hair and is credited with killing 22 people. Citron was Jorgen Haagen Schmith who got the name because he worked in the Copenhagen plant of the French carmaker, Citroen. (A name that has nothing to do with lemons, unless you count some of their cars).
Both men were killed by the Germans in October, 1944, just as in the movie. The real Citron, however, died with a group of resistance fighters hiding in the same safe house.
The inscription on the memorial to Citron in Copenhagen says, “For all good thoughts they cannot die before even better thoughts are sprouted of their seeds.” I guess that’s a Danish way of saying that we ought to make their deaths lead to a better world. I’m not clear we’ve done our part.
Flame and Citron is a good movie, and also a reminder that bravery is often mixed with bravado, that good deeds often turn out to be bad, and movie heroes are only in the movies. Maybe the only lesson is the one found on so many French World War Two memorial sites. “Passersby, go this way and remember.”
FOR MY FATHER
Shredi Jabarin, Hili Yalon, Shlomo Vishinsky
A too sensitive suicide bomber in Tel Aviv is to blow himself up in the Carmel market but he's delayed by a bad detonator button. The pause is long enough for several Jews to complain, "You think you've got problems?"
Dror Zahavi plays it straight in what also could be flipped into a Woody Allen comedy. Tarek (Shredi Jabarin) is dropped off by his buddies at the Tel Aviv's big Friday market. If he doesn't detonate, his handlers do it by remote cell phone control. When the button one his explosive vest doesn't work, he takes the button to an electrical store for quick repairs, assuring his handlers he's got the situation under control and they don't need to trigger the remote. Electric merchant Katz (Shlomo Vishinsky) tells him the button is caput. The good news is he can order a replacement but it won't be delivered until Sunday because of the Sabbath.
That gives him two nights and a day to wander around, save lovely Keren (Hili Yalon) from being beaten up by Hassidic toughs because she looks slutty (they want to take her back to her Orthodox family). He also gets a dose of Jewish wisdom and fatalism from Katz and friends. Meanwhile we learn Tarek was an aspiring soccer champion but turned bitter when his father was beaten up by Israeli border guards.
There is enough breast beating here to make everyone hang their head. The showdown comes Sunday in the market when Katz, who is on to Tarek's mission, tries a soul searching approach to stop him, just ahead of the police sniper team's bullets.
The hand wringing would have worked in a comedy, although I guess a comedy about suicide bombers is not exactly commercial for Jewish film festivals where films like this usually make their money. As a drama, it still has its moments and manages to delve into the mind of the terrorist. See Sontash Sivan's The Terrorist (Movie With Me) for comparison. His film is about a pregnant suicide bomber with the Tamil Tigers and takes a much more personal, complex approach.
But For My Father has its moments and makes its point. For those with the stomach to mix sociology with suicide, it is a good meal.
Zach Braff, Peter Sarsgaard, Natalie Portman, Ian Holm
New Jersey has a special call to its young, even when they get older. If Bruce Springsteen had been born in Ohio, would he sing about it? Zach Braff walks in the footsteps of John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven), shuffling back to his boyhood haunts and old conflicts in his native New Jersey.
For a guy who is an actor turned director, it is a pretty impressive stroll. As in most “return to” films, the plot doesn’t make a lot of difference. His mother has died and he goes back for the funeral. High school buddy Peter Sarsgaard is now a gravedigger. Langerman (Braff) is a hang loose, hang low, lost sort of guy who is still looking around corners hoping to find himself.
Then he meets Sam (Natalie Portman). She’s so far gone in Jersey she wears a helmet to keep her from bashing her head. Natalie Portman is one of the chameleon actors (Billy Crudup is another; though he isn’t in this movie). Natalie can be the lively center of a film, or so plain looking and featureless that she blends into the background. Either way her performances are always terrific. In Garden State, she’s not only there, she is it. The film comes alive with her: a neat trick in a movie about death.
Zach Braff works by absorbing the characters around him. Whether he can actually act or he is playing a credible version of Zach Braff is hard to tell. But he had the good sense to cast Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard in his movie. They make the toll on the Garden State Parkway worth the price of going beyond the Meadowlands into the hazy unknown.
Erika Marozsan, Joachim Krol, Ben Becker, Stefano Dionisi
A love triangle ends in suicide over a song. Or is it resentment of the Nazi general who can order the piano player to play his favorite tune? The most amazing thing about Gloomy Sunday is how well it plays as a three-course melodrama in a restaurant that serves too much schmaltz.
The Jewish owner of a successful Budapest restaurant, Szabos, keeps them coming back for his special beef roll dish and his gifted piano player who composes the theme everybody wants to hear with their dessert. He’s in love with his beautiful waitress, and she’s in love with the new piano player. The two men decide to share her. A German businessman is in love with both the food and the waitress. He gets big portions but no love. Later he becomes a Nazi commander, stationed in Budapest. He sneaks off to the Jewish-owned restaurant for a good meal, a couple of tunes, and schnapps with his old friends.
Hans (Ben Becker) promises Lazlo (Joachim Krol) that he will spare him deportation. Just in case, Lazlo puts the restaurant in Ilona’s (Erika Marozsan’s) name. Hans reneges, Lazlo is rounded up, and Ilona sleeps with Hans to save Lazlo. It doesn’t work, Hans sends Lazlo to the camps anyway.
The peculiar, and endearing part of Gloomy Sunday is that everyone, save the piano player, seems to make an interesting life accommodation to time and circumstances. The two men understand they are rivals but Ilona won’t choose, so they share her. She becomes the helpmate to both. Lazlo insinuates himself in her love for the piano player by becoming his career manager and insuring the success of his song. The girl sleeps with the Nazi when she must, and the Nazi tries to shows, in his dying moment, that his betrayal was over love.
In the end, Ilona is left with the son she bore from her long ago liaison with the piano player. They toast to the past in the restaurant she now runs. If this isn’t the stuff of grand opera it should be. It’s from a novel by Nick Barkow, called A Song of Love and Death. This is a much better title than Gloomy Sunday and a hint that great melodrama awaits. Nothing wrong with melodrama if you are expecting it, and this is Gloomy Sunday’s real strength.
GO FOR ZUCKER
Henry Hubchen, Udo Samel
Dani Levy has tried many comedies before (and his Hitler one after) but this is so far his funniest. How can you top a man who fakes a heart attack falling into his mother’s grave in order to make his game time at a pool tournament?
Zucker (“sugar,” his real name is Zuckerman), is a German Jewish pool hustler and whorehouse entrepreneur who works the bar rooms of Berlin pretending to be drunk. His con: get the suckers to bet on a game with him. Despite his proficiency as a pool shark, Zucker is steps from foreclosure and divorce when his mother dies in Frankfort.
Her will stipulates that he and his long estranged brother need to sit shiva together (morn for the dead) for seven days to qualify for her inheritance. The brother is an Orthodox Jew.
Zucker is an Ostie; cut off by the Wall around East Berlin most of his younger years. When the Wall went down, he quickly moved his con schemes to the West.
The best comedies come from characters with a soul for larceny who gets tripped up by self-deception. Add a Jewish family with all the quirky differences and rivalries that keep it in a perpetual state of resentment, envy, and jealousy; and you have a pretty potent brew.
This comedy would be expected in Israel but is surprising in Germany. A Jewish comedy? But why not? Ernst Lubitch learned about comedy there, and so did Billy Wilder. They brought their laughs to Hollywood while Hitler stayed and made himself into such a self-parody that everyone from Charlie Chaplain to Dani Levy had to take a shot (see Levy’s film, My Fuhrer, but don’t expect it to be Mel Brooks’ The Producers)
Daniel Bruhl, Katrin Sass, Chulpan Khamatova
This version of the American Rip Van Winkle legend is set in Germany. What if you went to asleep in East Berlin just before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and woke up to a new world order? What if you were kept from seeing things had changed so completely because the shock might kill you? Alex’s mother wakes from a six month long coma after a heart she suffered just before the Wall crumbled.
The doctor warns him not to do anything that could upset her fragile recovery. He interprets this as his dictum to keep things exactly the same as before the Wall went down. So he recreates East German life in her apartment just as it was a year before. But life and history move on, and there comes the inevitable moment when she ventures out in her slippers to see what has become of her cherished country and countrymen (the scene in the clip).
In Germany this film unleashed a wave of “ostolgy,” the German-English term for nostalgia for the old East Germany (someone has even started manufacturing Spreewald pickles again). Goodbye Lenin! could easily have been a crass, one-line comedy. It’s not that at all.
The deeper story is of Alex finally learning the truth about his father (who fled to the West when he was a toddler), and understanding how to free himself from the confining world he has created around himself and his mother.
Who is the real Rip Van Winkle asleep in Good bye Lenin!? Alex has been dreaming all his life and now must shake himself awake and find a life in the wider world beyond the apartment, and beyond the Wall that once protected him as well as isolated him. Washington Irving’s short story is about a man who falls asleep just before the American Revolution and wakes up twenty years later, still proclaiming his loyalty to King George. What we take as a children’s tale is not that at all, but a serious look at change and denial. History rushes past us every instant of our lives. Those of us who choose to sleepwalker can never feel the breeze.
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.
Ismail Ghaffari, Hedieh Tehrani
Ji Woo Chung
Do Yeon Chun, Min-sik Choi, Jin-mo Ju
Husband kills wife out of concern for their child. Like many of the reverses that make Korean films so delicious, the concept of wife murder for child welfare is kind of endearing. Or at least it is well justified as the ending in Happy End.
Bora (Do Yeon Chun) is having a torrid affair with a young guy, Il-beam (Jin-mo Ju). He lives in the same super giant apartment complex where she lives with her husband Ki Min (Min-sik Choi) and their baby. It’s tough enough to take the train to work with everyone she knows, but sneaking into her neighbor’s apartment for nightly trysts (she says she is working late) gives the affair a flash of daring.
And it is quite an affair. The sex is hot and hotter, and she can never get enough. Her lover wants her so much he gives her a key to his apartment. But Bora wants nothing of him but his penis, it seems. She tosses the key in her purse and forgets it. When he takes the big step of buying her a toothbrush of her own: she says enough. Any sign of permanency freaks her out. Her real life is down the hall and up the elevator with her husband and baby. She’s carefully to take only pictures, leave only footprints.
What she forgets is the Polaroid pictures Il-beam has been snapping of them in just about every position. Her husband finds the key, finds the apartment, finds the pictures.
Husband Ki Min carefully plots his wife’s murder down to the smallest detail of human hair. This crime of passion is accompanied by a sound track swelling with classical music using the sucking sound of steal penetrating flesh as a counter rhythm. (Min-sik Choi is the same actor who channels blood so well in Old Boy and Lady Vengeance (MovieWIthMe).What is so delicious about Korean cinema is its perfect mixture of art and gore. We’re led down a path festooned with rich characters and images only to find ourselves at the doorstep of depravity. How much more wonderful could movies be than this?
Birol Unel, Sibel Kekillil
Cahit crashes his car head on into a wall and wakes up in recovery to meet a suicidal girl who says she’s going to marry him. That’s just the first ten minutes of writer/director Fatih Akin’s pretty amazing maze that leads from Hamburg to Istanbul.
To know the characters, you’ve got to know the history. In the boom days of German car companies they needed more workers than the country could supply. So Turks were imported as guest workers. To the everlasting regret of proper Germans: they stayed. Today the major cities of Germany have big Turkish communities. German’s have had a hard time adjusting to head scarves, but an easier time snacking on doner kebab and curry wurst (supposedly invented at Konnopke’s Imbiss, a Turkish snack bar in Berlin).
Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) is needy for love in all the wrong places and targets Cahit (Birol Unel). He’s a druggie who won’t talk about his first wife’s death. She’s tried to slit her wrists and is now captive of her family. Both share a Turkish lineage and both have turned away from their roots. They speak German when together.
He agrees to a marriage of convenience so she can escape her parents’ home; but even on their wedding night his violence erupts and he throws her out of his apartment. She drinks at a bar in her wedding dress and seduces the bartender for a place to stay.
The film walks a tortuous path towards self-identity: Capit and Sibel yearn for love but are blocked by fear and violence. Capit kills a man in a bar fight and goes to jail. Sibel taunts a gang to beat her to death and they nearly do. It sounds grizzly but this is all subtext. What keeps us interested is our belief that these two really want to share love for each other, and somehow will find a way.
Like Akin’s later, superb film, The Edge of Heaven (MovieWithMe), these strangers in a strange land must return from Hamburg to Turkey to find themselves, and in this case, understand their love. (Sibel Kekilli also stars in When We Leave, a 2010 German/Turkish film is which displacement in an alien culture has tragic consequences).
In Akin’s films Turkey is a mystical place where modernism is mixed with a gathering sense of self. It is the homeland where truth, blotted out by Western European life, reappears. In The Edge of Heaven it is Nejat’s road trip to the village of his father. For Capit, just released from prison, it is the pilgrimage to a place he doesn’t know with a language he doesn’t speak in search of the girl he never let himself love.
What makes Aikin so brilliant are stories that border on pathos but always manage to hold the line. In less skilled hands, they would be soap operas. Head-On is only the second of many full-length films by a now-acclaimed brilliant filmmaker. But it needs no excuses for being an early work.
Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha (best friend), Ari Graynor (girl), Danny A. Abeckaser, Mark Ivanir
Poor Jesse Eisenberg, he’ll always be the Jew. If you look through his credits he’s played guys named Eli, Daniel, Benjamin and Mark (twice). In Holy Rollers he is Sam Gold, and orthodox black hat Jew in Williamsburg, Brooklyn who forsakes davening for the drug trade.
Eisenberg is an excellent actor and director Kevin Asch makes the point in his movie (based on a real story) that if you take away the tzitzis and black coats, these guys and their girl (Ari Graynor) are no different than any other punk Ecstasy pushers.
When you look at Jesse dressed up as a Hassid, you can’t help thinking what Mark Zuckerberg might look like if Facebook went kosher. Zuck might be one of the richest men in the word but he has the sex appeal of a gnat.
One scene that also gives some deja vu thoughts in Holy Rollers is when Sam’s (Jesse Eisenberg’s) father sits him down at the dining room table and says the Rabbi told him Sam is not coming to shul anymore. Sam tries to regain his father’s confidence by telling him he is still religious and his goal is still to be among the faithful; but to no avail.
We’ve been here before. Let’s flash back to 1927 and The Jazz Singer (or 1952 or 1980 for the remakes). Al Jolson tells his father he wants to sing jazz, not kol nidre, and is disowned. Holy Rollers gives it new twist. Now it’s ‘Dad, what I really want to do is deal drugs.”
Carlos Padilla, Leonor Varela
Boys hide in school bathrooms while soldiers search with automatic weapons. They cry for their mothers. Their crime: they are twelve years old. Chava watches. He is eleven. The war in El Salvador started in 1980 and went on for more than a decade. It didn’t take long to exhaust the supply of recruits. The army went into the schools each year, drafting twelve-year olds.
The most devastating war films are not about the battles but the people caught in the middle. Innocent Voices is one of the best, but the least known. It should be up there with Shenandoah and Drums Along the Mohawk. But nobody ever gave this film a popularity award. El Salvador is where cleaning women come from who tape pictures of their children to their employee lockers. Nobody cares. More Americans know about Rwanda than El Salvador.
Chava, lives in a small village with his mother, sister, brother. His grandmother lives down the road. His father left for the US years before. The villagers are caught between the lines of the government army, sponsored by the US; and the guerrillas, manned by local insurgents. Chava is about to turn 12, and is living the last days of his youth before the army will snatch him. The film catches him between the playfulness of childhood with his puppy-love girlfriend; and the death, misery and destruction he sees daily all around.
The incredible performances of Chava and his mother, and the interweaving of normal childhood innocence with killing and death make this movie indelible. At one point he escapes a massacre of his friends, the guerillas, and runs for his life: only to encounter one of his former schoolmates, in the uniform of the army, manning a machine gun. Before the hour of his twelfth birthday, Chava’s mother packs him off with smugglers bound for the USA where he can join his father.
How Luis Mandoki got these performances from child actors is a mystery. I found this whole film remarkable for the authenticity, subtlety and performance. Made in Mexico, it really should be called a Mexican film, but since the story is in El Salvador, it is fitting to call it an El Salvadorian film. Probably one of the few. Who named it Innocent Voices? That’s enough to guarantee no one will see it. Why not 12-Year-Old Soldiers?
Maybe it could have attracted more than the bleeding heart audience. Turtles Can Fly, the excellent story of Kurdish children in wartime (MovieWithMe.com) is at least a curious title. The story of Innocent Voices’ financing, title, and production is probably more complex than the movie itself. How sad we can recite the horrors of the Congo and Rwanda but remain clueless about tragedies so near.
Marianne Faithful, Miki Manojovic
If there was an Academy Award for most bizarre original idea, Irina Palm would win it hands down. The story of a grandmother who takes up a career jerking off men through a hole in the wall at a London sex club in order to raise money for an operation to save her grandson’s life; is one that had to be dreamed up in a cloud of ganja smoke.
Marianne Faithfull, the whiskey-voiced British pop star of the 1970’s, and theme song chanteuse for Alan Rudolph’s film, Trouble in Mind, is now a grandmother. Sadly for those who remember when, she looks the part.
Her cute little grandson needs £6000 so he can be flown to Australia for a complicated operation done only by a doctor there. Not much demand for sixty-plus plump ladies in the sex trade, but handwork is anonymous. All Maggie (Marianne) has to do is sit on a small chair and respond to a buzzer as men put their penises through a hole in the wall. She applies a little lubrication and a lot of creative stroking.
We never see their penises nor witnesses them ejaculating. Too bad because it might have made Irina Palm a must-have sex tape. And without penises we can’t witness what makes her hand jobs so amazing. Why are all these guys willing to wait in line for her? How has she becomes such a profit center for club boss Miki (Miki Manojlovic)?
The trouble in mind with Irina Palm is it never pushes to real porn or flat-out comedy. Think of this story in the hands (bad pun) of David Fincher or Woody Allen. Those would be two fascinating remakes.
Irina Palm is a curiosity worth watching, especially if you want to see what happens to old pop stars. And I can’t help speculating what the pitch meeting must have been like as the writer spun the tale for the producer. He would start with, “If sex is mostly fantasy then anyone can do it behind a wall.” The producer is hooked. He leans forward listening for more. So do we.(note: this film was actually made in Belgium but we call it a UK film for clarity).
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.
KING OF THIEVES
Lazar Ristovski, Yasha Kultiasov, Oktay Ozdemir, Katharina Thalbach, Julia Khanverdieva
Mixing romanticism and misery was always been a specialty of Eastern Europe. The excuse was grimness enforced by Communism. The Communists are long gone but the filmmaking conventions persist.
Jan Sverak, who directed Koyla, is a leading proponent. Ivan Fila, who directed King of Thieves and Lea before, is an eager student. Both films are about children who undergo traumatic experiences as they experience the injustices of the world.
Barbu (Yasha Kultiasov) and his older sister Mimma (Julia Khanverdieva), children of a Ukrainian peasant, are sold to a traveling circus promoter for a better life in Berlin. The girl is forced into prostitution and the boy is trained to be a pickpocket. Caruso (Lazar Ristovski) is the ringmaster overseeing it all.
He’s a mixture of charm, magic, and brutality that is counterbalanced by his drug-addicted girlfriend Julie (Katharina Thalbach) and Marcel (Oktay Ozdemir), the boy who befriends Barbu and tutors him in the art of thievery.
What keeps this pudding together is Caruso’s swings form demonic to delightful. One moment he is whipping the boys and threatening them if they don’t go out and get more money. The next he is doing magic tricks and taking Barbu to the circus.
The photography is by Vladimir Smutny, a seasoned pro with colored gels. He’s from the paint with light school of Eastern Europeans who are time-warp practitioners; throwbacks to when Hollywood cinematographers also believed that a shadow was something without value unless you bathed it in color. The effect heightens the romantic feeling of a film whose plot is pretty grim.
But the combination of grimness and romanticism is the reason King of Thieves stands out and is worth a look. The other curious reason to have a look is the production shut down in the middle for lack of money. It was re-started two years later. Two years is a long time for two rapidly growing kids. Interesting to watch Barbu and Mimma as they take a jump in size and maturity not entirely due to their new professions as a whore and a thief.
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.
Ronit Elkabetz, Lior Louie Ashkenazi
Two enormously fat Georgian (Soviet) Jews invade the love nest of their son in Tel Aviv and demand he leave his lover for is wife. He’s not married yet, but they have plans and love shouldn’t get in the way. We normally think of Israelis as shrewd men and tough women. But in an immigrant nation, there’s no such thing as normal.
It’s a melting pot where nothing melts. There’s an old joke about a Jew marooned alone on a deserted island who builds two synagogues. When he is rescued they ask why two? He says, “one to worship in and the other one I wouldn’t set foot in.”
Zaza is 31. He’s in love with a 34 year-old divorcee with a young daughter. He is blissfully happy, especially in the very sensual bedroom scenes with Judith (Ronit Elkabetz). She’s pretty amazing, in bed and out, and has gone on to many more movies, mostly in France. But in Late Marriage she’s content to take of her clothes and jump on Zaza, making him the happiest Georgian in town.
But she’s divorced, and she’s not of his Georgian tribe. When his parents storm her apartment she’s sure he’ll chose love over tradition. Ha! You can accuse director Dover Kosashvili of short-handing a lot in the parents’ characters, but he precisely asks the right questions of conviction versus convenience. Zaza tries to slink back, but you don’t slink with Judith.
Judith’s had enough of him, and Ronit, seems to have had enough of Israel. She moved to France and continued her career with Origine Controlee, an intriguing little movie that was brought to American as Made in France. (This takes the all-time prize as the worse title translation ever).
Meanwhile at home, the Israelis are still battling one another to prove ethnic and moral superiority. Tradition battles commerce, religion battles secularity. It makes one of the most fertile cultures for filmmaking even if it is the worst for peace and politics. I’m reminded of the old Kingston Trio song, “They’re Rioting in Africa,” that goes:
“The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles. The Italians hate Yugoslavs, the South African’s hate the Dutch. And I don’t like anybody very much.”
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.
LET IT RAIN
Agnes Jaoui, Jean Pierre Bacri, Jamel Debbouze
Is it the director’s revenge to cast your husband as the asshole? Agnes Jaoui is an excellent French actress who directs her second film Let it Rain. Her real life husband, Jean Pierre Barci plays Michel, an oafish video maker who is making a documentary about her.
She’s running for the legislature representing a section of Provence. Actually the district is called Rhone-Alps. We know this because the financial key to many French films making a deal with one of the regions (departments) to promote tourism. They give you production money and you try to feature their landscape, towns, hotels, and restaurants.
Agnes, as Agatha, undergoes a tireless round of family squabbles and minor irritations in her quest to win the election. Michel and his brighter sidekick, Karim (Jamel Debbouze) never seem to be able to say “action” and “cut” in sync.
So it goes. The film has a woman director’s touch in lingering moments between Agatha sister, her children, and a somewhat estranged male companion. One of the standout elements of the film, besides a good catalogue of places to eat and sleep in Rhone-Alps (you can watch this film while open to Trip Advisor)– is the music. Mostly Schubert but supplemented with wild brass band music from Santiago de Cuba. It gives us a taste of the unique sound of this east end of Cuba city usually eclipsed by Havana sounds.
After noting restaurants for your next visit to France, it’s worth a click to iTunes to download a sample from Santiago de Cuba. All your friends will marvel at the range of your tastes.
LIFE ACCORDING TO MURIEL
Soledad Villamil, Florencia Camiletti, Ines Estevez, Jorge Perugorria
When an actress bursts out in full stardom we often wonder where she has been all of our movies lives. How could someone so appealing and sexy be hidden so long?
The answer with Soledad Villamil, the amazing presence in the Academy Award winner, The Secret of Their Eyes, can be found in this little know Argentinean film about a mother and daughter’s journey to Patagonia.
Escaping from an unhappy relationship, Laura (Soledad) flees Buenos Aires with only the possessions she can stuff in her car, including her daughter, Muriel (Florencia Camiletti). When they’ve driven far enough to take a breath, Laura pauses at a roadside viewpoint high above a beautiful Patagonian lake. While they take a picture of themselves in their new freedom, the car rolls forward and plunges into the lake.
Is it comedy or tragedy? A little of both as they trudge to a nearby inn run by Mirta (Ines Estevez), another refugee from a bad relationship. The inn becomes their fortress as the three forge a friendship that cannot be penetrated by men (nor, for that matter, can they be penetrated by men). Until Ernesto (Jorge Perugorria), Muriel’s father, shows up and camps in his car until he captures Muriel’s heart. Laura eventually succumbs, and maybe, just maybe, the little family can make it work this time.
The mixture of anger, hurt and self-preservation that flips in an instant to sensuous need is all here in Soledad Villamil’s performance. It is a blueprint for the qualities that have made her so special. She is so easy to look at you shouldn’t ignore the performance of the daughter. It is, after all, life according to her (Muriel). This film has a core of heart and soul that spins in all directions, enveloping the characters and the landscape in a glow that just feels good.
Martina Gusman, Elli Medeiros, Laura Garcia, Rodrigo Santoro
If you have a child in prison you can raise him/her until the age of four. After that guardians take over. But between one and four resides all the anguish of a motherhood that will end.
What starts out as a women in prison movie slowly morphs into a character portrait of a woman who loses all sense of the passage of time. Julia (Martina Gusman), has only one touchstone to the passing of days: the growth of her little son Tomas. Tine passes with him towards the inevitable day when he will be taken away from her. There are two villains in this movie, and one true friend.
The villains are her former lover, Ramiro (Rodrigo Santoro) who survives the bloody night in their apartment where her other lover is murdered. She has been living with the two men (she claims) against her will. Tomas is the child of the murdered man and the only witness is the other defendant, Ramiro. They wait in jail for the outcome of the court case (a peculiarity of Argentine law).
But Ramiro turns against her in his testimony, and she is sentenced to ten years. The other villain is her mother, Sofia (Elli Medeiros) who has been absent living in France for years but comes home supposedly to help. What she really wants is Tomas.
Julia starts to engineer her escape, but like everything else in the chicken cage of prison, she keeps it from everyone but her prison confident, Marta (Laura Garcia). When it happens, we are as surprised as the guards.
Watching a film like Lion’s Den you want to scream “where has this been?” and “why did I not know about it” and “why haven’t the director and his actress been proclaimed king and queen of cinema?” Actually they may not be king and queen but they are husband and wife. And Pablo Trapero has a long history of directing and producing films about social causes and social injustice. Lion’s Den is a great addition to the list.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne,
Arta Dobroshi (Lorna), Jeremie Renier (Claudy), Fabrizio Rongione (Fabio)
So many films about immigrants but so few that drill down to their vast emotional problem: loneliness. The physical hurdles are familiar, but the feeling of isolation is not.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne explored it in Rosetta (1999) and here it is again. Rosetta lived in a trailer camp with an alcoholic mother. Lorna lives with a drug addict she has married to get her Belgium residency papers(she is Albanian).
Like all the Dardenne films, the bleakness of Belgium is the shadow over events. This shitty little country, caught between the French culture of the Wallonia, and the Flemish culture of Flanders is held together with duct tape. Like most other products made in Belgium, it is not very good.
In this land of blight, Lorna tries to move up the social ladder. This means dumping her druggie husband so she can get paid off to marry a Russian. Once he’s got his papers, she is free to live out her dream with a another dubious immigrant who makes a living cleaning the insides of nuclear reactors.
The wonder of the Dardenne brothers is they can take characters like Lorna and Rosetta and make us care. Their genius is in casting. Where did Arta (Lorna) come from? Kosovo is the answer: she is an ethnic Albanian. But she started acting as an exchange student in the North Carolina. Then she was thrown back into the war in Kosovo. Her family fled to Albania (that’s like fleeing to Siberia).
Before seeing the film, read these two interviews with Arta. The one from the Huffington Post will give you breathless details. The one from BIRN (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network) is less gushing but more has more facts. Lorna’s Silence is all about Lorna, so you ought to know all about Arta.
Helen Mirren, Joe Pesci, Sergio Peris-Mencheta
Helen Mirren has a few sexy miles left in her even when surrounded by a trailer full of gorgeous Nevada whores half her age. She climbs into bed with Spanish hunk Sergio Peris-Mencheta (Armando) who is 30 years her junior.
Why would the actress who won an Oscar for playing Queen Elizabeth (The Queen) want to play the wife and partner of a desert brothel owner (Joe Pesci)? Probably for the same reason Meryl Streep followed It’s Complicated with The Iron Lady.
Actresses of a certain age (Mirren was born in 1945, Streep claims 1949) need to follow class with ass or visa versa. Otherwise they only get offered the roles for wordly wise, flinty, post menopausal grand dames. No one wants to be told, “you'd be perfect as Mother Teresa.”
Love Ranch is very very loosely based on the goings on at the Mustang Ranch near Las Vegas. Charlie (Joe Pesci) and Grace (Helen Mirren) run the joint successfully until Charlie decides they should branch out into the prize fight business. Armando is an Argentine boxer down on his luck.
The real Sergio Peris-Mencheta ia actually a Spanish heart throb from Mardrid. He pucnhes his way into Grace’s tough-love heart. His performance is worth the movie.
Digesting the plot requires some teeth gnashing, but there are so many really good scenes you (almost) forgive the rest. Taylor Hackford started his career in documentaries, and maybe this vison of hot sex on the cold desert plateau based on a true story was a reminder of his doc days working for Public TV.
Or maybe it was a chance to give his wife, Helen Mirren, a sexy star turn to wash away the preception that she was more regal than Queen Elizabeth.
Funny how male English actors don’t suffer from being called Sir or Lord, but if a woman is called Dame she’s expected to wear long skirts and go teas. Love Ranch has Helen Mirren playing a nude love scene. See it; because it may be the last time anyone wants to look.
LOVERS OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE
Najwa Nimri, Fele Martinez
Hamid Farokhnezhad, Leila Hatami, Gohar Kheirandish
Iranians hijack a plane to fly to freedom and the woman in the chador is hiding a gun? This sounds like a parody of Airplane, but is a serious action movie that makes points over and over despite its low budget feel. Ghasem has a plan to flee Iran with his little son and pregnant wife.
He’s convinced all his relatives that jobs await at the Total Oil Company if they come too.Packing the plane with your own relatives seems an original way to stage a hijacking. Too bad Iranian sky marshals are on board.
It’s easy to dismiss Low Heights at first. It’s talky like many Iranian movies (watch how much they talk in Farsi to say one line in the subtitles). The airport set is tacky, the plane interior looks like a cheap soundstage. If the plane never seems to really take off, the character do.
Remember this was made around the time of 9/11. Nobody was rebelling in Iran yet, and the country was still recovering from a long, devastating war with Iraq. Director Ebrahim Hatamikia made many documentaries about that war. Perhaps he understood that the Ayatollahs were not going to make life any better. Escape to the west, especially to America, was on everyone’s mind.
His characters seem very contemporary in their desperation to escape the strictures of the state. Even the sky marshals play the role of the tough guys we now call the Basji. But there are a few humorous character distractions that always appear in airplane in danger movies going back to The High and the Mighty.
How can you not sympathize with the guy whose got the gun until his mother comes down the aisle ordering him to give it up or shoot her?
“Hijack, Iranian Style” might have been a better title than Low Heights. Titles like this are usual bestowed by sales agents at Cannes whose command of English is about on par with the actor who plays the pilot commanding this aircraft.
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.
ME AND ORSON WELLES
Christian McKay, Claire Dames, Zac Efron
Towards the end of his life Orson Welles would agree to appear in any film, TV show, or commercial that would pay him $2000 a day. His bulk required a wheel chair and an oxygen tank at the ready to help him breath. He died owing thousands on his house account at Ma Maison: the one restaurant that let him run a tab.
The Orson Welles of this film is young, vital, creative, egoistic, charismatic and thoroughly mesmerizing. Christian McKay played Orson in a one-man show long before signing to play this part. His familiarity and ease with the role make the movie.
The plot isn’t much. Orson’s Mercury Theatre troupe is about to perform Julius Caesar on Broadway. Orson hires a young aspiring actor (Zac Efron) to play a small part. Zac falls in love with Claire Danes (Sonja) without realizing Orson is also bedding her.
What makes Me and Orson Welles rise above the plot is its examination of the theater, of the belief that great things came happen there, and that actors are really escape artists fleeing from themselves. “If for 90minutes I get this great reprieve from being myself—that is what you see in every great actor’s eyes.”
Too bad a movie about the soul of Broadway had to be shot in London. This is a British production trying to overcome the lack of money by faking just about everything from Central Park to 45th Street. Maybe it was deemed too risky for Hollywood.
The risk also led to an advertising campaign featuring the young romance angle (Zac and Claire) and completely ignoring the power of the film vested in Christian McKay as Orson. His wonderful examination of an actor’s soul—or lack of it is what’s worth watching. Me and Orson Welles also has a lot to say about an amazing period in American theater (during the Great Depression) and the crazy genius who went from staging Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a Nazi parable to vowing “We will sell no wine before its time” in TV commercials.
Martina Gedeck, August Zirner)
Remade as No Reservations (USA 2007, 104 min, dir: Scott Hicks, cast Katherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart Bob Balaban)
An expensive meal in a posh restaurant leaves you full and poorer. Next morning, can you remember what you ate? These two films are a mash-up of good cooking and elegant service. So why does one delight and the other push us away from the table?
Let’s cut the cute talk. Mostly Martha is mostly director Sandra Nettelbeck coaxing a charming performance out of Martina Gedeck. If you think Gedeck is just another breezy actress who is a natural for this part, take a look at her in The Lives of Others and The Baader Meinhof Complex. From neurotic chef who never has a hair out of place to brooding terrorist, she’s got an amazing range.
Then try Katherine Zeta-Jones in the same role, directed by Scott Hicks. It’s an easy comparison because both films have the same story almost scene for scene. Didn’t anybody say, “wait a minute, do we really need even the song by Paolo Conte (Via con Me)? Martha is the lonely perfectionist who rules over a chic restaurant kitchen. Everything changes when her niece is suddenly orphaned and must come to live with her. Complications mean a sous chef needs to help her cook. Enter August Zirner (German version) and Aaron Eckhart (USA).
I kind of prefer Eckhart, even though he tries too hard. And Zeta-Jones is okay, even though Gedeck is more gegrubel (brooding). Mostly Martha was a big hit in Germany. No Reservations was a dud here. Why? Every Make & Remake comparison is different, but here I think it is about expectations. German audiences liked sexy aunt Martha slowly getting seduced by a man, and food. It’s Kultur (culture).
American audiences don’t give a shit about Kultur. If it’s food: there should be a lot of it, and if it sex: let’s get their clothes off. Here’s a place where a pie-in-the-face food fight followed by hot sex on the prep counter might have given us so memorable a scene that it would be endlessly played in those Academy Award clip reels of classic movies. But instead we got a gentle remake. Toss the souffle and gives us Ben & Jerry’s Stephen Colbert’s AmeriCone Dream ice cream. Fuck Kultur, Americans want to eat.
Hye-ja Kim, Bin Won
I’m never sure if director Joon-ho Bong is a comedy director. Mother is a serious murder mystery where a mother tries to clear her son. But it is so funny that you can’t help wondering if the world-weary mother and her dullard son aren’t really playing dead pan humor.
He’s accused of killing a girl, but mother won’t give up on him, no matter that it costs her everything else in her life.The strength of the movie is Hye-ja Kim as the mother. She’s an actress whose face is lined with suffering and whose eyes are set in resolve.
Who couldn’t love or hate a mother like this? There is really nothing between those two poles. The story and characters are all delicious, even if the plot meanders like the stream on the golf course where Bin Won found the golf club driver that is the crucial piece of police evidence. Even minor characters are delicious; like a police detective who watches phone videos or his female evidence clerk who asks whether they really need to send the golf club to forensics because anyone can see the red stuff is not blood, but lipstick.
These are the touches that make Mother delightful. The same attention to detail and offbeat characters can be seen in Joon-ho Bong’s earlier horror movie, The Host. That one also deals with water but not on a golf course. The Host is about a monster that comes out of the river to terrorize a city. Humor and terror, the meal is best as a mix of both dishes.
Read more: http://www.moviewithme.com/blog/?p=2179&preview=true#ixzz1eemRl4iC
MOTHER OF MINE
Topi Majaniemi, Marjaana Maijala Brasse Brannstrom, Esko Salminen
MY BEST FRIEND
Daniel Auteuil, Dany Boon, Julie Gayet
If Daniel Auteuil was an American, he would be Richard Gere. Auteuil is that always available, always serviceable, but never quite exciting star. He had great beginnings in Jean de Florette back in the mid-eighties. Here he is again, voila!
This time he is a Paris antique dealer with a good business but an empty life. He has no friends. So here’s the studio pitch: man with no friends takes a bet to find one and learns what friendship is all about. Before you say “Pass-adena, remember that producers in France don’t need to make money on pictures; they just make their fees and move on.
Where the film gets interesting is when it happens to land on the SAME plot device used in Slumdog Millionaire. Bruno (Dany Boon), the hapless taxi driver who was suckered into Francois’s (Auteuil’s) bet, is also a trivia expert. Thanks to some high-powered manipulating by Francois, he gets picked for the French version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (According to movie lore, the only country that has not had a version of this show is Iceland, where the bankers ran off with everybody’s money).
So it comes down to the “Lifeline” phone call where the contestant reaches out to one special friend who can help answer the most difficult question. The lifeline call to Francois is the beginning of an emotional connection between them. Francois finally begins to understand friendship.
In both Slumdog and My Best Friend, the phone call is the story turn towards resolution. In both films it works; we are emotionally hooked. Watch My Best friend and Slumdog Millionaire and ask yourself: Where would the movie writers be without David Briggs, Mike Whitehill, and Steve Knight.? These three veteran UK game show creators came up with the TV idea. The answer: up the creek without a third act, that’s where.
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.
Ayelet Zurer, Alon Elkabeth, Shmil Ben Ari
Young Nadav lusts after his sexy Aunt Nina by peeping in her window and writing lustful stories in his diary about her. When Nina’s husband dies in a bomb incident while in the Army reserves, Nadav’s mother sends him temporarily to live with Aunt Nina so she won’t be alone. From the spare room he gets to observe all the twists and tragedies of her love life.
Soon Annon installs himself as her perfect lover. Actually he was part of the Army detail who came to inform her of her husband’s death (in a great bit of humor, they soldiers on the detail get the wrong apartment and inform the wrong widow. She faints, but manages to scream out “You want Entrance B” as she recovers. (the unit next door-see the clip).
Annon is everything Nina wants. He is sensitive to the point of crying, he is poetic, and he is dedicated. He also has a girl friend. What make Nina’s Tragedies so watchable are the little twists between tragedy and humor. Like the naked man Nina sees in the street who resembles her husband. He turns out to be the boyfriend of a Russian woman who is a buddy of Nadav’s peeping Tom accomplice. So it goes.
The film would not have worked if not for Shmil Ben Ari (Annon), who seduces not by sweeping Nina off her feet, but by crying over her tragedies. What an original twist on a guy trying to prove he is sensitive. Meanwhile Nadav is coming of age in this cozy world of lust and irony.
Some movies work so much better on the small screen, and I think this is one of them. In a theater Annon’s crying would be unsettling. We would think, “Get over it.” On an intimate screen his over-the-top emotions are just perfect.
Ricardo Darin, Gaston Pauls, Leticia Bredice
How can one movie be a hit and the remake a dud? What goes wrong is always a mystery but it follows the old rule: you never know how it will turn out.
Nine Queens is an Argentinean classic. A clever grifter recruits an understudy to help him with the big one: he’s got his hands on forgeries of a priceless stamp collection (the nine queens are the faces on the stamps). He’s going to sell them to a visiting billionaire for big bucks. Most of the action takes place in the hotel where the billionaire is staying, and where the con man’s sister is, conveniently, the concierge. The deal gets rough when the billionaire throws in an added condition: he wants to sleep with the grifter’s sister. She hates her brother, and grinds him into the ground on the deal for her ass.
Great idea, very original. The writer/director was an assistant director most of his short career (he died at 47 of a heart attack while casting a commercial in Brazil). Nine Queens is his lasting memorial. You can’t find much wrong with it, and the casting of versatile Argentine actor Ricardo Darin (see clip: Son of the Bride on MovieWithMe), and fetching Leticia Bredice (be sure not to miss her playboy photos) is inspired.
So why did it bomb when remade in America as the film, Criminal? What are the clues? Remember the phrases “writer/director,” “versatile,” and “playboy.” The American director, Gregory Jacobs, is also an accomplished first assistant director.
Criminal is his one of Jacobs' (shared) writing credits, and his solo directing gig. I suspect he got this break because of pals on a lot of big Hollywood pictures he’d worked with as First A.D. Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney are the producers of Criminal. Their clout probably landed John C. Reilly and Maggie Gyllenhaal.THAT was the big mistake.
Movies are conceits. If you don’t believe what’s up on the screen is real you’ll take your popcorn and go home. Maggie Gyllenhaal is very talented, but upper class. I’ll NEVER believe she’s going to fuck a guy for her brother’s con game. Leticia Bredice will sell hers body to anybody for the right price, including Playboy.
There’s an old saying in movies, “you can’t play working class, you either are or are not.” Maggie is a gifted actress, but she’s no Stella Kowalski (A Streetcar Named Desire). She's better in the Blanche Dubois role.
John C. Reilly is no Ricardo Darin either. He’s also a wonderful character actor who specializes in sleazy bumblers. (see clip: The Good Girl on MovieWithMe.com). If he’s playing a bumbler and you know he will lose, so what’s the surprise?
Look at clips of the same scene from both movies. Leticia/Maggie are walking up to the billionaire’s hotel room door resolved to carry out their end of the bargain. See whom you believe.
ONG-BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR
The “Science of Eight Limbs” is the essence of South East Asian kickboxing. To appreciate the beauty of Ong-Bak you must first understand what you are watching. The story of a stolen statue is only an excuse to display Muay Thai, the Thailand version of boxing.
Western boxing uses two points of contact: fists. Karate style boxing uses four: hands, feet. Nak Muays, the name for the boxers who fight with Muay Thai, use eight: hands, feet, elbows, and knees.
Head of a statue, the most precious possession of a small village is stolen by an unscrupulous businessman. Booting, or Ting (Panom Yeerum), a village boy and their champion fighter, is sent to Bangkok to retrieve it. Once he gets there he is forced to fight and fight the bad guys until he gets the statue back.
The innocent from the country against the city mob is not remarkable. But the stunts are stupendous.. There are many sequences, both fighting and chasing, that are daring, original, and breathtaking. The clip is of an extended chase through the city with the bad guys nipping at Ting’s heels.
Many chase elements are filmed in slow motion and choreographed like dances. What makes this even more complex to shoot is the flips, kicks, and amazing aerobatics. This can not be done in slo mo, so the camera needed to be over cranked for some parts of the sequence, and set at normal speed, 24 frames, for others. Watch how intricately everything is planned.
While you watch think that what you see is not just a Thai movie, it is the cinematic representation of a physical art form so ancient that the name for it comes from Sanskrit: the Indo-Aryan language of Hinduism and Buddhism that goes back 3500 years.
OSS 117: LOST IN RIO
Jean Dujardin, Louise Monot.
James Bond with vertigo teams with an Israeli Mossad operative in a miniskirt to find Nazis in Brazil. He can recognize Jews by their noses and believes his mission is to bring better understanding between Nazis and Jews.
This is the second James Bond spoof that Michel Hazanavicius has directed. The first was OSS 117: Cario, Nest of Spies. The plot of that propels OSS 117:Lost in Rio is an attempt to find a microfilmed list of French who collaborated with the Nazis. But all the really matters is a chance to riff on old James Bond movies, including the split screen images still remembered in old title sequences.
But OSS 117 was actually a French James Bond before James Bond. Author Jean Bruce first invented him in 1949, four years before Ian Fleming published his first James Bond novel. The first movie using Bruce’s OSS 117 character was made in 1957 (OSS 117 N’est Pas Mort). The first James Bond movie was made in 1962 (Dr. No).
Michel Hazanavicius has gone on to make the much-praised The Artist Jean Dujardin also stars). At first it seems odd that a television comedy, and commercial director should suddenly show up with a film about silent film stars shot in black and white and without dialogue. But if you look more closely at his filmography you discover his first movie, La Classe Americaine, was a compilation of old clips from Warner Brothers dubbed into French.
From a film made up of classic clips to two stylistic parodies of Bond movies to The Artist is a very logical evolution. In all these films the director has managed to recreate the clunky styles of the past without every making them silly.
Ellen Barkin, Richard Masur. Matthew Fabur
Locked away in some dusty attic is the small dollhouse in which Todd Solondz played out his childhood fantasies.
There are droll dolls, pervert dolls, and dead dolls. No wonder his first film was Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995).
The meaning of Palindromes is frozen among cobwebs in one of the dusty doll rooms; as if it were a single cell in the director’s mind. This is to say you can’t understand a Todd Solondz movie unless you know the inside of that dollhouse, and nobody has been there or ever will be except for Todd.
The best the rest of us can do is sniff at the scent of genius and an order of depravity as we watch movies like Palindromes. But we must always remember that the whole is not the some of its parts, the whole is a hole. The parts are all. Some are delightful, some confounding, some are stupid.
The theme of Palindromes is a pubescent high school girl played by various actresses who wants desperately to get pregnant. You can read the rest of the plot at Wikipedia.
Cousin Mark (Matthew Faber, my favorite character in the film) says that life is like a palindrome where everything is only self-referential. “It doesn’t matter if you gain 50 pounds or lose 50 pounds or you have a sex change: what have you, all these shapes and sizes in the center; is a part of ourselves that is palindromic by nature.”
He alone really understands the dollhouse. The rest of us are tour visitors wandering from room to room in hope we’ll either found the toilet or the exit. Either way, it’s a journey worth making at least once.
Aldemar Correa, Angelica Blandon, Margarita Rosa de Francisco, John Leguizamo
Sometimes a movie is a big screen bore and a small screen gem. A Colombian director and Latin cast shooting an American movie in New York City with subtitles? Reina seduces Marlon into abandoning squalid life in Medellin for the mean streets of NYC. He loses her almost immediately and spends the movie looking for the girl named “Queen” (Reina) is an a place named Queens.
John Leguizamo turns up here and gives an idea for a flat screen double feature: Paraiso Travel followed by Where God Left his Shoes. This 2007 movie traces a homeless family trekking to find shelter in the same hostile outer boroughs. What is it with the outer boroughs? I always thought charity and compassion began there. From these two films you’d think Manhattan was, by contrast, a borough full of innkeepers with warm smiles and open hearts.
Many cross-the-border films have shown the trials of the trip, but few talk about the trails of the destination. Marlon is not only searching for Reina but for himself, and the obsession with the first blinds him in the second. How else could he turn away from a gorgeous thing like Margarita Rosa de Francisco? She’s the heart of the picture and magnificent.
Paraiso Travel is a Neoyorquino movie that shows life under the Elevated where Roosevelt Boulevard meets Junction Boulevard and the next turn is Tecun Uman on the Mexico Guatemala border.
Juliette Binoche, Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Karen Viard, Melanie Laurent, Albert Dupontel
A dozen films share the name “Paris,” but only this one captures this modern city prancing like a transvestite in Seventeenth Century robes. The genius of Cedric Klapisch in all of his Paris-set movies like When the Cat’s Away and Peut-etre is that you feel he lives in the city every day.
And he does. Somewhere in the Thirteenth or the Twentieth arrondissemont, he probably hunches against the winter wind like everyone else schlepping his or her shopping bags home from Monoprix or making the daily visit to the boulangerie, for his stick of “traditionale” French bread. Living in Paris, one understands the Babel the city has always been plus the sense of chubbiness where all the residents feel like members.
Paris captures it all, and strives to show daily life for fishmongers to fashionistas. You won’t see many French films that set scenes at Rungis: the vast produce market outside of Paris. Nor will you see the cafes that stay open all night to serve the market workers. Rarely will you see films that use the new city built in Ivry (near the Biblioteque Nationale). Here it is the backdrop for the story of a working architect.
Karen Viard, playing the owner of the neighborhood boulangerie (bakery), is a stereotype known to every Parisien. The bread counters are always presided over by a precise, perfectly coiffured, middle-aged matron who greets you with her singsong voice every morning. As nice as she seems, she will instantly fire a shop girl who can’t fold a tissue properly over a financier parisserie, and she will urge you to try the new apricot tart but will never give away a free sample.
If Klapisch has one failing in his city view, it is that there are no poor, there are no ugly; there is no brutality. His Paris is made up of middle class, educated, and lovely people. Even the fruit sellers in the neighborhood outdoor market are cute. The vast underclasses of North Africans that surround Paris in the suburbs never intrude into Klapisch’s district.
This is the filmmaker’s blind spot, and it has been so in film after film. Perhaps you can see the high side of life or the misery, but it is difficult to have an eye for both. Within his view Cedric Klapisch does have a unique vision that is a delight to anyone who can appreciate a worldly modern city as a singular planet. His art is a blend of architecture, personality, whimsy and sound. Inventive music tracks are memorable in Paris, as in the earlier films Peut-etre and l’Auberge Espagnole (also in Movie With Me).
And for a man who loves his city there can be no greater respect than to get the directions right. You never see a character in a Klapisch movie turn a corner and step out a mile away. At the end of Paris, Romain Duris tells the taxi driver to take him to the Hospital in Montrouge. The taxi driver replies that a demonstration on Boulevard Richard Lenoir might impede them so he suggests an alternate route. Not only is the route he picks correct, but the director actually shoots the shots out the window along the way. That’s a Paris movie made for Parisiens. After all, they are the final critics Paris is made to please.
Emery Eduardo Granados, Carlos Ceja, Alan Chavez
This is not a glamorous profession like bank robbing. All it takes to steal cars is a screwdriver and guts. The initiation of Ivan starts in a junk yard. His uncle Jaimie orders him to strip naked, then locks his shirt, pants, and underwear in different wrecked cars. He hands him a window shiv and tells him if he can jimmy the car doors open, he can get his clothes.
Every big city has a section for stolen cars. In LA it’s Bramfield Street in Pacoima. In New York it’s Willet’s Point in Flushing. In Mexico City it’s everywhere. Vast tracts of land set to one purpose: a thieves market for auto parts. Partes Usadas is about the low-lifes who steal by night to fill parts orders by day.
You don’t find moments like this in Grand Theft Auto. The fascination of Partes Usadas (Used Parts) is that it looks as low-life as the characters it portrays. No lovely lighting or polished dolly moves here. Even the quality of the film looks like it was outdated stock that was stolen.
At first I wanted to click “eject” because the movie has the smell of amateurism. But I got slowly hooked as I realized the lack of style was the style. Emery Eduardo Granados could be another Gael Garcia Bernal if he gets some breaks. Meanwhile Partes Usadas is a primer about what happens when your BMW disappears. Chances are if the police don’t find it in two hours there won’t be enough left to honk the horn.
Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh
Audrey Tautou is not Audrey Hepburn. This much we knew in God is Great, I’m Not 2001, and Amelie (2001). But she is fetching, sexy, and appealing enough to float like a peach melba through films like Priceless. So much better than bombing completely in dogs like A Very Long Engagement (2004).
A barman and a female hustler (Audrey) meet on the French Riviera. She’s in pursuit of a rich man who will give her everything; he’s hunting for the same in a woman. Naturally they are not meant for each other, but then again, maybe they are. Director Pierre Salvadori is the “go to” guy in France for date night romance movies, but that doesn’t mean he’s a hack. On the contrary, he’s very good at what he does and in Priceless he struts his stuff. Where he earns his euros is in stoking the jealousy and desire each character has for the other while they go about hustling romancing their own private gravy train between the sheets.
Finally Audrey gives up her dream of money and runs away with her euro-centless (penniless) true love. Audrey is always best as the waif. Here she is the one who is so confused by what she thinks she wants that she almost looses her real love when he is right in front of her. It is so much better than watching her trying on all those big hats in Coco Before Chanel (2009). We are happier with Audrey in Priceless. Which is exactly the point. For the price of a movie ticket or a DVD you can have 104 minutes of joy.
Nicolas Winding Refn
Kim Bodina, Laura Drasbaek, Zlatko Buric
Frank (Kim Bodina) loses the dope, is broke, and the drug boss Milo (Zlatko Buric) wants his money. What else is new in the underworld? But Pusher is a breakthrough movie. When it was made, well before Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film,21 Grams, Brian De Palma's Scarsface was still the model for a pusher movie.
Pusher built the genre in a different direction. Dope dealer Frank is not misunderstood or charmingly lethal. He is just a nice average guy trying to dig himself out of a hole that keeps getting deeper while Vic, the girl who loves him (Laura Drasback), stands by hoping he’ll figure it out.
Refn creates a documentary style to follow the action in long takes and subjective pans to cover dialogue between characters. If it looks familiar now, it is because half a dozen TV police shows use it. His inspiration was not police stories, it was horror movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre he watched as a child.
The director’s genius is building off beat characters that start out unlikeable and slowly make us warm to them as the struggle but miss all chances at redemption. Pusher, Pusher 2, Pusher 3 and Drive follow this model.
Best to see all of these together. They offer lessons in cinema style as well as consistent character development. Drive is an American movie (MovieWithMe) but it follows the same rules of Refn’s view of characters: the arc goes through thwarted expectations to thwarted resolution.
This single-minded vision is probably what has protected Refn in the transition to Hollywood films. It is also what probably got him thrown out of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when he threw a table at the wall in an argument with a teacher.
REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES
America Ferrara, Lupe Ontiveros, Ingrid Oliu, George Lopez, Jorge Cevera Jr.
Before fatties became trendy in American movies and on television, Real Women Have Curves celebrated cellulite in the Mexican-American community of LA. The film was ahead of its time trying to give new meaning to the term jiggle.
The storyline could be a TV movie if it were not for America Ferrara. She came on the scene here, and hasn’t stopped. Most TV watchers know her as Ugly Betty in the American adaptation of the Spanish language TV show. This is fortunate because she is rumored not to speak much Spanish.
She’s not from the barrio. She grew up in Woodland Hills. That’s right, she’s a Valley Girl. It’s kind of cute to watch her handle the occasional Spanish phrase in this thoroughly American movie.
Her father Raul ( Jorge Cervera Jr.) works as a gardener, runs a leaf blower, and wears a straw hat. You couldn’t get more stereotypical in LA unless he ran a lunchero (taco truck). Mother (Lupe Ontiveros) is more interesting. She runs her own little dress making sweatshop with her older daughter Estela as the overseer (Ingrid Oliu).
Sweet Ana (America Ferrara) is forced into the trade because mamma and daddy don’t want to break up the family by letting her follow the pleas of school advisor Mr. Guzman (Geroge Lopez) and take a full tuition scholarship to Columbia University.
The movie is a sweet flan that is engaging and engrossing despite being a little too sugary. America Ferrara made her major debut in this picture. Her past work had been a student short at USC Film School (she married the director). What’s in a name? Would she be the major star she is if her name had been something like Graciela Pachuco?
Not to take away from her talent, but a promotable name sure helps. Those old Hollywood publicists who named Kirk Douglas (Isur Danielovitch) and Cary Grant (Archie Leach) knew the game.
Valeria Golino, Vincenzo Amato, Francesco Casisa
Lampedusa is an isolated Italian island near Tunisia where the sun beats and the beat of hot sensuality rises above the ancient cliffs. Grazia (Valeria Golino) is a fisherman’s wife who some think mad, some think erotic, and all think is too much to leave alone.
The real life Lampedusa is a place of azure beaches where you are either a fisherman or a tourist. That is, unless you happen to be one of the hapless African immigrants trying to escape to Italy who wash up on its shores and make the international news. But this last aspect of the island culture is another movie yet to be made.
The Lampedusa of the film Respiro is limited to the story of Grazia’s (Valeria Golino) husband Pietro (Vincenzo Amato) and their three sons. The oldest, Pasquelle (Francesco Cassia) is the only one among the family or the village who understands his mother’s need to escape the judgment of a family and a town who sees her only as too free spirited.
When her husband decides to ship her to Milan for psychiatric treatment, she escapes into one of the caves in the cliffs that surround the island. Everyone looks for her and when they find her clothes on the beach, they assume she has drowned herself. Oldest son Pietro (Francesco Casisa) is devastated until he finds her hiding place. The he makes secret daily trips to her cave to supply food.
It could be an Italian opera: an elemental story of love, fear and tragedy where small human creatures play against a fantastic landscape. But director Crialese manages to pump up the sensuality to a point where you feel everything and everybody on this island exudes a basic sexual life force. Grazia always has that freshly fucked look except when she tears off all of her clothes in front of her sons to go skinny-dipping. And the sons rarely wear more than skimpy swimsuits; except when rival gangs attack them, strip off their suits, and send them running home naked.
Lampedusa reminds me of another remote island, Formentera, along the Spanish coast, where another sensual movies was filmed in a land where the sun beats: Sex and Lucia (MovieWithMe).
Johannes Krisch, Irina Potapenko, Andreas Lust, Ursula Strauss.
Alex (Johannes Krisch) changes sheets in a brothel where he falls in love with a hooker named Tamara and plots their escape from the pimp who owns her. He robs a bank to get enough money but Tamara is shot and killed by a cop during the getaway. If someone pitched this idea you’d suggest jumping off a bridge just to end depression.
That is, until you understood the shooting is only a preamble to the real story. The man who killed the prostitute, Robert (Andreas Lust), is a cop. His wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss), is trying to get pregnant but knows her problem is his impotence. Meanwhile she’s taking care of an old farmer who is the grandfather of bank robber Alex. And Alex, mourning his girl friend Tamara’s (Irina Potapenko’s) death and needing a place to escape, comes to the farm. Are you with me?
What starts out as ordinary tale (except for Irina Potapenko’s body, which nobody can describe as ordinary) becomes a tale of revenge (revanche in French) that skims over the predictable and always finds an original direction.
Robert (Andreas Lust) is the cop overcome with guilt at what he has done, even through it was an honest mistake in the line of duty. His wife is so faithful to him she is unfaithful when she meets Alex chopping wood at the farm because sees him as the sperm stud who can be the answer to her pregnancy problem.
It may all sound complicated and a bit contrived, but the result is captivating because of the players. Much in the style of another Austrian, Michael Haneke (Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, The White Ribbon), Gotz Spielmann is wonderful at implied relationships and penetrating character studies. See his masterful film of three urban character studies, Antares, also on MovieWithMe. See especially part one of that movie which is one of the most erotic chapters to come out of staid old Austria.
Margarethe von Trotta
Katja Riemann, Maria Schrader, Jutte Lampe
You open your morning newspaper in 1943 and read, “Gestapo Frees Jews.” You take a gulp of coffee. This is startling but you also remember a headline back in 1938, “Goebbels cancels annual anti-Jewish Kristallnacht: glassmakers protest.” If you were a German citizen at the time and could still afford coffee, both stories were true.
Americans view of the Nazi era, propagandized by the franchising of Holocaust museums and Quentin Tarantino movies; is of relentless, depraved evil. We make no allowance for what historian Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”
What happened at Number 2-4 Rosenstrasse (Rose Street) has never been forgotten among Berliners, but it took the bravery of director Margarethe von Trotta to finally film it 60 years later. Starting in January 1943, the Gestapo rounded up all the 6000 Berlin Jews for deportation and death. The rumor was that Joseph Goebbels, head of propaganda, wanted to have them all gone by Hitler’s birthday in April. (This kind of sentimentality is exactly what made Goebbels such a highly paid PR exec.)
At first they spared Jewish men married to Christians (called: geltungsjuden). The Nuremburg laws of 1935, outlawing marriages to Jews, also exempted existing marriages. Therefore the husbands could not be counted as Jews for deportation. But in March 1700 geltungsjuden were arrested and housed in the Jewish Community Hall at 2-4 Rossenstrasse to await deportation. It was a convenient place to store them since Gestapo headquarters was nearby.
As soon as word got out about where the men were imprisoned, their wives began to gather in the street below. For a week the women stood, their numbers growing to over 1000. They were threatened by the Gestapo. Police aimed guns at them. Sometimes they would run and disperse for a few minutes, only to return in stronger numbers. The wives called out the names of their husbands, hoping for a yell back from the windows above. At the end of a week, Goebbels realized he had created a public relations nightmare.
Good Aryan German women were standing in the street defying threats, pistols, and machine guns in solidarity with their husbands imprisoned inside. It confirmed the suspicions of more and more law-abiding citizens that the government respected no laws.
This was not the first time. Kristallnacht was a big blowout in 1937 that had also backfired. On the pretext of retaliation for a German diplomat’s assassination in Paris, Goebbels had ordered his thugs to go out and beat up Jews, break windows in Jewish businesses (Kristall=glass), and trash property. You can see pictures of it in any of the dozens of Holocaust museums. It’s chapter one in the time-line for the Holocaust.
So if it was such a big success, why didn’t Goebbels make it an annual event? There were no more Kristallnachts because a large segment of the German public, especially the more educated, disapproved of it. It gave them an uneasy feeling that the Nazi government was capable of going beyond the law. In ‘37 this was enough to call off future Kristallnachts celebrations. In 1943, the war was going badly. The Battle of Stalingrad was lost, people were on rations, Army generals were questioning tactics and strategy. What the Nazis didn’t need was more tsuris (Yiddish=aggravation) on the streets of Berlin.
Over a thousand women were standing day and night, shoulder to shoulder. If Kris Kristofferson had been born they would be singing: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” (he didn’t write it until 1969). Inside Gestapo headquarters something had to give. After a week, Goebbels ordered the men released. They poured out of the building into the arms of their wives.
This is a powerful film detailing the complex relationship of several generations of women, ending in a moment of joy and tears. But don’t look in the Holocaust museums for references to Rosenstrasse or to the few historians like Tzvetan Todorov who note the negative impact of Kristlanacht. It doesn’t go along with the neatly packaged mythology of doom. If evil is banal, there are always good people who see a way to challenge it: and sometimes they win.
SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD
Michael Cera, Ellen Wong, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Michael Cera, as Scott Pilgrim, has less sexuality than a monkey. Once you can get by his lusting after the unattainable girl in the red wig, this film is one of the more imaginative young love movies of recent times.
It is also one of the few movies shot in Toronto that is actually set in Toronto. Budget filmmakers love to shoot Toronto for New York or Chicago or just about any big city because it looks like just about any big city. Although, to be fair, no New York director would confuse Manhattan and Toronto.
The story is minimal: Scott is a gee wiz kid living with his slacker buddies and second guitar in their band. Romona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a recent transplant from New York who appears in the mix of young adults trying to find direction. (She comes to Toronot to find herself? She could have gone to Yonkers).
Soctt persues, she resists. Meanwhile Scott has been dating a high school girl (Ellen Wong) who fights Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead )at every opportunity to keep her man (why does she want him? Never answered).
The strength of Scott Pilgrim vs. The Word is not the story but the style. Director Edgar Wright inserts words, titles, comic book “Pow” and “Crash” in a way that tries to emmulate the graphic novel origins of the story. He suceeds in punching up a ho hum tale with cleverness.
The merger of the graphic novel style with live action film is a next step in evolution of visual presentation, and this movie is enjoyable as a fluffy fling and also, at a future point, a benchmark along the way to a graphic movie form we are only just discovering.
SEX AND LUCIA
Paz Vega, Najwa Nimri
Sex shows everything and disguises plot. Julio Medem is a pure visualist whose stories are usually ridiculous. Here he gets away with it. But Strip away the gorgeous bodies, lingering looks, steamy nights and torrid landscapes: what is left is Lucia falling madly in love with a gifted poet and becoming his constant companion until memories drive him to the brink of suicide.
Thinking him dead, Lucia flees to a sun filled island to heal in the care of her best friend, Elena, who is healing from her own tragedy: the death of her daughter. They both have affairs with a scuba diver before discovering that the daughter's father was the Lucia's poet lover. Miraculously at this point, the poet comes out of his suicide-induced coma.
Try telling that one in an elevator pitch. What is remarkable is that Medem's film works. Paz Vega vies with Najwa Nimri for the most beautiful body and the most writhingly sensual love scene. Their lovers are perfect Spanish archetypes. The poet is soft and doe-eyed. The scuba diver is big, hirsute, with a big cock. The clothing budget on this film was minimal.
Score by Ivan Aledo underscores the dreamlike quality. Altogether Sex and Lucia is an amazing tone poem that needs to be appreciated slowly, deeply, lanquidly; like sucking a fruit ice on a bright hot white beach before plunging quickly into the in cool blue ocean beyond.
Cary Joji Fukunaga
Edgar Flores, Paulina Gaitan
Luz Martinez, Jacob Vargas, Luis Fernando Pena
Cheap Mexican labor does the work we won't, but in this futuristic vision we've figured out how to use them without ever letting them across the border. Alex Rivera's ingenious "what if" movie shows a world that is the inheritor of H.G. Wells, "The Time Machine." In that famous novel, humanity was divided between carefree people who live on the surface of the earth and busied themselves with frivolities; and the lowly workers who lived below in lightless caverns. The Morlocks below, churned out the food and materials that allowed the Eloi, above, to be carefree. Only problem: the Morlocks often snuck above at night and ate the Eloi.
Anyone who lives near the Mexican border knows about maquiladores. These are the sweatshop factories built on the other side (the dark side) near border cities. Low-paid Mexicans churn out toasters and table chairs for Wal-Mart. It's all perfectly legal under the NAFTA treaty. They work for us but we don't let them in.
Sleep Dealer has gone a step further. Mexicans who want to work are first fitted with metal receptors pierced into their flesh. They can then go to work in giant factories where they are fitted with probes that fit the receptors. Once hooked up and wearing special vision goggles, they find themselves manipulating their arms and legs to control robots up in the US that do anything from baby sitting to picking fruit to working heavy construction.
The perfect solution to immigration! Import only the robots and let the drugged out, sleep deprived Mexicans do the hard labor so they can pay our giant corporations for the their water, electricity, and food. Sleep Dealer is a small movie that has a lot to say, and what it says is so condemning that it is amazing so few have seen or listened.
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.
Kerry Fox, Anamaria Marinca, Stephen Dillane, Rolf Lassgard
What do Sudan, Israel and the United States all have in common? They are the only three countries in the world not members of the International Criminal Court. Next question: what is the International Criminal Court?
It is a UN sponsored investigative and judicial system headquartered in The Hague, Netherlands and charged with judging crimes against humanity such as genocide. It gets tricky for a country like the US and Israel that build Holocaust museums and where Jews urge “Never Forget.” They won’t join because they might be prosecuted for trifles like Guantanamo and Gaza. Sudan can be excused because no one there probably knows what a court is anyway.
The brilliance of Storm is in using the International Criminal Court as the setting for a first rate murder mystery. Hannah (Kerry Fox) is a prosecutor sent from ICC in The Hague to try a former Serbian commander accused of genocide. She manages to ferret out the real truth about the crime only to see European Union politics present a barrier to justice.
Though Storm is a German production, the language is English, and the narrative resembles some of the best of courtroom/mystery dramas. It’s intelligent and suspenseful. More over it is original in trying to examine how the ICC works, and how politics can derail the highest of motives.
Most Americans don’t know there is an ICC, or that is has the power to try politicians like Slobodan Milosevic. Or that the UN maintains a secure prison in The Hague where sentences are served. The UN attempt at international justice is far from American shores because we refuse to support it. The irony of the US refusing to support justice for all because it would mean justice for us too, is a further reason to see and consider the story told in Storm. Who amongst our politicians or generals might be in the defendant box?
Selma Blair, Robert Wisdom, Paul Giamatti, Mark Webber, John Goodman, Noah Fleiss
Explaining Tood Solondz’s humor is like trying to parse a sick joke that everyone laughs at so hard they pee in their pants; at least if they are stoned. Storytelling should be up there with The Big Lebowski as one of the all time, never-get-tired-of-it stoner comedies.
Where else can you take gleeful satisfaction in the white suburban high school girl hanging with her black lit professor as he commands her to strip naked in his apartment and fucks her from behind while making her scream “fuck me hard nigger.” (I watched the R-rated version from Netflix). When she writes an essay about the fucking in her lit class, the other girls criticize it mercilessly until it becomes obvious they have all done the same deed with Mr. Teacher.
At the family dinner table, her slacker brother Scooby announces that if Hitler hadn’t ordered the Holocaust, the Jews wouldn’t have fled to American, and neither he, his sister, nor his parent would have been born. So, he reasons, they should all thank Adolph Hitler for their good fortune. Stuff like this doesn’t come out of a normal mind. It comes out of Todd Solodnz’s inspired mental process. No psychiatrist on the planet is up to explaining it. But any one of us who has suffered through American high school will have no comprehension problem.
Todd Solodnz has only given us too few films. Some are easy to see, some are tougher to fathom (like Palindromes). The big money in Hollywood abandoned him as he got more weird and kinky. But if he lived in Austin, Texas, he would be a national hero. Alas, there is no place for slacker heroism in Newark, NJ (his home town). It is not the place where a yearly Todd Solodnz film orgy will every be held. It will more likely play some college town theater with broken seats. Maybe Madison, WI, during exams, so all those students who find studying to be personally repressive can have an alternative. I’d fly there and bring my own beer.
Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Ellary Porterfield
The Wizard of Oz is about a girl from Kansas who lands in a strange land and wants to go home. Sugar is about a boy from Oz who lands in Kansas and he just wants to go home too.
Oz is the green fields and palm-shaded towns of the Dominican Republic. Sugar is a baseball pitcher good enough to (maybe) be a star. Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico are to ball players what Iowa is to corn. Iowa exports corn and the D.R. and P.R. export young ball players headed for the farm teams for the major league American teams.
Playing big league ball is the dream exit from poverty.
Sugar’s landing in Iowa is a little different from Dorothy’s in Oz. She arrives in a house. He steps off a plane and into a station wagon for the drive to his new home. Mom and Pop’s contact with internationalism is hosting a succession of young Dominican and Puerto Rican ballplayers who’ve come to join the local Bridgeport, Iowa team.
Baseball and going to church are about all there is to do here. Sugar can’t speak English. He is black. He is expected to say prayers and take dinner with the family. He’s also expected to keep his eyes off their redheaded daughter. There is no game that will play him out of his loneliness.
So is this a baseball movie? Not really. That is why it is so good. Like Dorothy’s saga, the yellow brick road for Sugar also leads to the Emerald City. But “The City” looks a lot likened York. Miguel gives up baseball for Spanish Harlem and the street life where he feels at home.
He won’t be a star, but he’ll join the millions who have made the journey here from his homeland and found some small happiness. If he could speak enough English, he would smile and say, “Not in Kansas anymore.”
TELL NO ONE
Francois Cluzet, Kristin Scott Thomas, Gilles Lellouche
The irony of Tell No One is a French film based on an American novel by a kid from Newark, New Jersey. Once upon a time American action filmmakers prided themselves and telling really great stories. No more. Shutter Island is a mess, and French cliffhangers like Tell No One are excelling at a genre we thought we owned.
It gets more embarrassing. Once this film became a hit in American art cinemas, Hollywood decided to remake it. Kathleen Kennedy, a big time feature producer, is transferring the action back to the US where it was set in the first place. Whether the remake will every see daylight is dubious.
Meanwhile the French, along with the Germans and the Koreans, are creating some of the best action and suspense films anywhere. Tell No One is a hard-plotted story of a guy who goes skinny-dipping with his wife, is hit over the head, and wakes up to find her dead. Or at least she is dead for several years until he starts getting disturbing notes from her. Then her best friend, who knows more, is killed. And then he is stalked by both the killers and the cops.
You want to see heart stopping ingenious action? Watch the chase across the Paris Paripherique expressway. Watch it again and again. American stunt men usually slow the traffic and speed up the camera. This is different: an intricate ballet between men and machines.
And when you’re finished analyzing that action sequence, take a look at District 13, also on MovieWihMe.com. It’s another amazing action picture that is supposedly in work for an American remake (called Brick Mansion). Don’t make any bets you’ll see it at a theater near you soon. Better to watch the original versions and marvel at truly great filmmaking.
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING
Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello
In an effort to forward the tobacco lobby’s campaign to get people smoking again, their chief spokesman, Nick, visits a Hollywood super agent. In short order, at his desk in front of a Japanese print meant to invoke the Hollywood mogul’s bible, Sun Tzu’s "The Art of War;" The Powerful One outlines a movie to promote smoking. Set it in the future, he consuls. People are put off by smoking now, but in a future, on a space station, it could be cool again.
It is parody. It is also brilliant. His description of a future couple lighting up cigarettes after weightless sex evokes an image of kinky sensuality. Therein lies the contradiction that goes through dozens of films where the Hollywood mogul scene is played out: he is always a misanthropic con man who is brilliant. Take a look at the mogul scene in these movies: Alex in Wonderland (1970), The Last Tycoon (1976), The Player (1992), Swimming With Sharks (1994), Wag the Dog (1997), Tropic Thunder (2008) and don’t forget six years of the HBO series, Entourage.
Even the Motion Picture Academy has noted this brilliance by inventing a special mogul Oscar award. The Irving G. Thalberg Award for “Creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” Thalberg, a Hollywood exec and producer of the 1930’s, was the prototype for the Hollywood mogul. He cast a shadow so long that F. Scott Fitzgerald used him for his hero, Monroe Stahr, in his unfinished novel, "The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western.” (Robert De Niro played him in the movie, The Last Tycoon).
Producers fight as dirty as the can to force the Academy to give them a “Thalberg.” It’s not a regular Oscar, it’s a separate award modeled on the head of Irving Thalberg. The question I asked myself when I saw the Hollywood mogul scene in Thank You for Smoking was: what motivates such extraordinary brilliance that we never tire of parodying it? Most Hollywood insiders would give you a short answer: money. They are wrong. You can make money lots of other ways and you don’t have to read screenplays all weekend. I think it is the need to tell stories.
In the soul of every great con man is a great storyteller. How else can you convince the mark to put down his money? Motion pictures were merely a new medium for the flimflammer’s art. And who is to say all great art doesn’t have at least a little of the same brilliance? If we could get Michelangelo to kick back and talk in his office, he’d probably tell us he had a great idea for a naked David placed right in the public’s eye: where they’d have to look up at his penis from below. “Wow, ” he’d say with his feet on his desk and his hands gesturing, “I can see the crowds!”
THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX
Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek
Well-educated twenty-something Americans suddenly become Al Qaeda and Pakistani terrorists. Go back to 1967, substitute German names, and you have Baader-Meinhof. The pressure to preserve wealth and power always creates outliers.
Ulrike Meinhof was a journalist. She was married with two children. Her generation grew up in the shadow of Hitler and could not understand how Germany would consort with dictators and support the United States in Vietnam. If the Nazi era was supposed to never be forgotten, what was the lesson?
Benno Ohnesorg was killed in 1967 in a Berlin riot protesting the brutality of the Shah of Iran. We know today that the policeman who killed him was actually an agent for the Stasi, the East German secret police. But no one would know that for 40 years, and it still isn’t clear whether Karl-Heinz Kurras pulled the trigger because he was instructed to escalate the demonstration by his Stasi handlers.
But this act, the Kent State of Germany (the Kent State killings were in 1970) was proof that no justice would ever be achieved, and that only terrorism and violence would purify a western society corrupted by capitalism. Sound familiar? If we were not so afraid to actually hear what the current wave of terrorists have to say, maybe it would sound similar.
And let’s not forget that Islam has always been a religion of profound intellectualism. Isn’t it strange we believe all the young Islamic terrorists are being corrupted by deceitful mullahs? Isn’t it odd that some of the best and the brightest of a new generation are planting the bombs? The press remains incurious. To get press attention it helps to have a catchy name with “bad” coupled with a word that sounds like Mein Kampf (Hitler’s best-seller). The exploits of the Baader-Meinhof gang with its Bonnie and Clyde overtones were great for tabloid journalism.
The Baader Meinhof Complex is about how terrorism starts, why it starts, and how it grows in every generation that is summoned to action by the affront of corrupted power. How it ends is another story; that too is covered in this long, detailed, and very important film. Know the past and know the future,or you are doomed to know only what those who own the present think you should know.
Watch for Martina Gedeck as Ulrike Meinhof. She plays Martha in Mostly Martha, also on Movie With Me. Only here you get to see what’s underneath that chef’s uniform.
THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED
Romain Duris, Aure Atika
remake of Fingers (USA 1978, 90 min, dir: James Toback, cast: Harvey Keitel, Tissa Farrow, James Brown)
Rarely is an American movie remade as a French one. Usually it is the reverse. What's clear is our style is brute confrontation and theirs is subtle manipulation. These two films, both excellent, are a Rosetta stone of Anglo-French cultural understanding.
James Toback made Fingers in 1978 with a young Harvey Keitel. You have to forgive him carrying a boom box everywhere on his shoulder: not even Sony Walkmans had been invented yet. Jacques Audiard made Romain Duris a Belmondo-like thug who hides his musical ambition as a concert pianist by playing imaginary keyboards on cafe tables.
Audiard also adds characters and levels of plot absent from Fingers. It would be easy to say the French version has more depth and polish. But it is easier to improve than create from nothing. I think the American version is actually subtler for what it leaves out, and more electric for emotions that are not stated.
Witness the two love scenes. Harvey Keitel is crude and forceful. Romain Duris is expressive, romantic, yearning and wanting. One is a trashing animal ready to climb on his conquest. The other is opening himself up to feelings long simmering. But which has more heat, and what is more honest in human passion? I think Toback takes the prize and his film, though less sophisticated and less of a successful character study; finally has more raw power. See them both together and acknowledge them both as excellent. See them for Tissa Farrow and Aure Atika adding very sexual interpretations to the same part. Then go on see Toback's Tyson and Audiard's The Prophet to understand the extent of their cinema art.
Yun-seok Kim, Yoo-jeong Kim, Jung-woo Ha
In The Chaser, Joon-ho Eom ( Yun-seok Kim) is the rogue cop turned pimp who sends his girls out to the grittier districts of Seoul. When one of them sends panicked cell phone calls back to him he frantically tries to find her and save her. She’s disappeared but the killer is in plain site.
Without evidence, and scorned by the police he once worked with; Joon-ho starts a long slog to bring down the killer (Jung-woo Ha). Along the way he bursts into his former whore/employee’s apartment for evidence and meets her little daughter (Yoo-jeong Kim).
From then on the movie has to follow the inevitable march to a life or death fight with the killer while the hero takes care of, and falls for, the adorable precocious child.
It all sound like we’ve seen it before, but the strength is in the delivery. Pathos, comedy, and great fights. The Casher is writer/director Hong-jin’s first film. The Yellow Sea is his second. He’s worth a look at both films.
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.
Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman, Sam Elliott, William Petersen, Christian Slater, Muriel Hemingway
It would be fun to re-write The Contender with present and future nuances. In fact, it would be fun to re-write it every ten years.
It’s hard to remember there was a time when we were so curious about the President we made movies and TV shows about him. That was while we had guys in the White House who philandered and lied. Now we’ve got a guy who seems more honest and nobody cares.
Rod Lurie is a West Pointer who is best at making political movies about the secret world of Washington. The Contender has a Hillary premise: what if the vice president died and the president had a chance to name a woman to the job.Â Not any woman; a woman senator with great creds except for two: pictures of her giving a blow job to two guys in a college frat house; and her seduction of, and marriage to, her best friend’s husband.
Lurie has given us Bill in Hillary’s body! This would truly be a hot concept if Joan Allen had any heat. Actually, I think I blow job from Hillary would be more interesting. Joan/Hillary is surrounded by guys who are brilliant at tactics and politics. Everyone in this movie is so smart you marvel that we once thought Washington was like this. Even the president is a cool guy who smokes a cigar at night with Joan/Hillary out on the White House lawn.
While we had a succession of opportunistic assholes running the country, we yearned for smarts, truth, and leadership. Obama brought a measure of those qualities but nobody rushed to make a movie about him. What happened?
I think the deceit of George Bush (credit to Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rove) followed by the Crash Of ‘08 removed any shred of respect for Washington. Americans’ approval of government has always been low, but now it is what Nielsen calls BLM (below measurable standards).
When The Contender was made, the Internet only mattered because it could spread nasty rumors (probably a reference to the Drudge Report, which now seems tame). No bloggers, no YouTube, no Digg, No Gawker. Not even the phrase “social networking.”
Joan/Hillary gave a blow job in college? What’s the web address for it? Let’s see it in slow motion. What do color commentators on cable news think? Fox interviews a woman who specializes in blow job therapy. She says the photos show a gagging reaction (very common) that is probably a manifestation of childhood EDDS (Emotional Denial Distraction Syndrome). Lord, how can we have a Vice President with EDDS?
Yes, it would be fun to re-write The Contender. Today it would be a crowdsourcing project on Facebook with enraged contributors accusing Mark Zuckerberg of rewriting them. What will it be tomorrow? That is why The Contender is far more interesting today than when it was made and why it deserves to be seen to show how far we have come and to be amazed we once believed in moral rectitude. Disqualified by a blow job in college: no way. Give that lady her own political talk show!
Read more: http://www.moviewithme.com/blog/?p=1197&preview=true#ixzz0uY1hlfSK
THE COUNTRY TEACHER
Pavel Liska, Zuzana Bydzovska, Ladislav Sedivy
Sex hangs heavily in the air like the scent of new cut grass. The woman farmer in The Country Teacher is neither young nor beautiful: but manages to charge every scene with her sensuality. A pretty amazing feat in jeans and a woolen shirt.
MovieWithMe.com also reviewed The Girl From Paris, which could be a companion piece to The Country Teacher. The first is French, the second Czech: both are detailed glimpses of actual life on a farm, and the blunt, rough characters that inhabit this environment. But The Girl from Paris is looking for a guy, while the Country Teacher is a gay refugee from the city looking for a place to recover from his broken relationship.
He finds room and board at a farmhouse near the school with a woman farmer and her teenage son. She wants romance, he wants her son. It could be the log line for a Hollywood remake. What saves the film from a one-line fate is the subtle sketching of the characters, all struggling under intense emotional needs.
The woman farmer maintains an incredible sensuality despite her daily routine of hay harvesting or cow herding. Her son’s brute courtship of his girlfriend is the only way he knows; even though she resists at every turn yearning for more civility. When she goes to college in the city he follows her, finding himself more out of place than ever. She rejects him and sends him home.
Back at the farm, the lad’s schoolteacher tries to seduce him. The intent is not so much to have the boy as to find some tenderness to fill his loneliness. The boy rejects him, and the result is the teacher’s exile. What is so wonderful about this film is its amazing slice-of-life quality creating empathy for a mother, a son, and a teacher: all of who cross each other’s lives, all of whom frustrate the other’s love, and all of whom we deeply feel deserve happiness.
THE CRIME OF FATHER AMARO
Gael Garcia Bernal, Ana Claudia Talancon, Andres Montiel
What girl could resist Gael Bernal? Especially if he is a priest and she loves Jesus? This was a big hit in Mexico, which seems strange for a movie based a Portuguese novel written in 1880 by Jose Maria Eca de Queiros. He was a cosmopolitan writer who often took on the Church.
The movie moves the action from a sleepy town near Lisbon to a sleepy town near Mexico City. Far enough away so all the intrigue of small town life can play out, but near enough to feel big city sophistication lurking over the hill. Everyone here is having an affair with somebody.
The local priest has been fucking his maid since she was young and good looking (she’s now middle-aged). He’s also available for baptisms at he hacienda of the drug lord. He’s the biggest contributor to the priest’s pet project: a new hospital. The town mayor, known affectionately as “Gordo” (fatty) has a live and let live attitude towards it all.
Into this sleazy backwater comes a new priest, Father Amaro (Gael). His blue eyes immediately set of an estrogen flow in Jesus-loving Amelia. He rents a room claiming he wants to give her instructions for joining an order of nuns. And he proceeds to give her very intense instructions on the bed, nonstop. In the next room a mentally handicapped child listens in. Weird.
There is melodrama for everyone, and at almost two hours, you have to take a head count to see how many have fallen from grace. The neat trick is making an 1880 novel work in contemporary Mexico, and keeping the pot boiling. And there’s the satisfaction of seeing Gael Garcia Bernal play a priest who can’t keep his zipper zipped.
THE EDGE OF HEAVEN
Baki Davrak, Nurgul Yesilcay, Hanna Schygulla
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN
Emilie Dequenne, Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Demy, Ronit Elkabetz, Michel Blanc
Tough enough to make a good film about something real that really happened. Almost as tough to make a film about something real that really didn’t happen. The Girl on the Train never comes to grips with the dark mind of the paranoid imaginer who made up this amazing story; or her motivation.
Jeanne (Emile Dequenne) is a young woman in bitter battle with her mother Louise (Catherine Deneuve). She finds her revenge against mother and the world by claiming she has been attacked by black toughs on a suburban commuter train outside Paris.
The commuter lines of the RER go lots of places around Paris. The trouble with Andre Techine’s movie is it doesn’t go anywhere. At the end we learn that she faked the whole episode. That’s disappointing for a film so interesting to watch; and gripping while you still think there’s a truth lurking around the corner.
Where The Girl on the Train becomes even more intriguing is when you look beyond the movie to the event that inspired it. In 2004 Marie Lionie Leblanc claimed that she had been attacked on the RER by a gang of blacks who ripped her clothes, cut her hair, and drew a swastika on her stomach. In the violence they knocked over her infant baby’s carriage. Passengers looked on but did nothing to help.
French politicians wasted no time in condemning the incident and Ariel Sharon told French Jews they had better pack up and immigrate to Israel to avoid this new “wildest Anti-Semitism.” The only problem was: Marie made it all up. No witness every came forward and within days the police proved she was lying.
That happened in 2004. But it echoed a 1987 incident that is almost the flip side. A 15 year-old black girl from Wappinger, New York (less than an hour north of New York City) claimed six white men raped her. Tawana Brawly said several of them were policeman, and one was a district attorney. The politicians went wild.
Black politician Al Sharpton seized upon it as proof of police hatred of blacks just as Ariel Sharon grabbed on to the RER incident as proof that the French hated Jews. Tawana never recanted her story. The grand jury did it for her. They failed to vote even a single indictment.
So the real story of The Girl on the Train should have been more about the mind of the fibber. What kind of person makes up this stuff? In the case of Tawana, and I suspect the same might apply to Marie; it is a hopelessly paranoid individual who can best make human contact by playing the victim. Tawana converted to Islam and moved from Wappinger Falls to tiny Claremont, Virginia. She changed her name, bought an attack dog, and began working as a nurse in a nursing home.
She’s never married, keeps to herself, and rarely ventures beyond Claremont except when she accepts free flights and limousines on returns to New York as a guest at United Africa Movement events.
I wish the film made clearer the pattern of a paranoid mind that understands how to jump on a hot button issue and sprinkle just enough truth to feed the flames. The reward is 15 minutes of fame and a celebrity glow that, if you play your paranoia right, can last your whole life.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Niels Arden Oplev
Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace
The Social Network is about an unsociable guy who is out to prove being a runt Jew from Long Island is no handicap to making billions of dollars. Northern Europe is cold to this kind of money hugging. Swedish geekdom is caused by incest, trying to burn your father alive, and giving forced blow jobs to your parole officer. The reward is being a lifelong outcast who can play a computer keyboard like a harpsichord.
Mournful characters who have seen enough depression to jump over a bridge never falter in being fascinating in the three movies in this trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest). Depression seems to grow wild in Scandinavia. Every wonder why every restaurant has candles burning in the windows, even in summer? They’re trying to let a little light shine in.
Meanwhile the plot of Tattoo skips along with enough holes to swallow an 18-wheel truck. Let’s excuse novelist Stieg Larsson from these excesses: he wrote and died before anyone challenged his logic. The movie makers should take most of the blame because they had a chance to fix it.
A woman drives across a bridge to an island and vanishes. So naturally we think she is either kidnapped or dead. Later we find out she was fleeing someone. Later we learn she is still alive. And finally we are told she actually did drive back across the bridge, but she was hiding in her cousin’s car.
At this point we should throw rotten tomatoes at the screen. But what saves Tattoo from disgrace is the frigid mist that invades the story. It is filled with lost love, loneliness, and existential confusion. Mikael and Lisbeth so isolated in their self-created solitude that the love seen between them, actually more or a rape of Mikael by Lisbeth: is thrilling in its crude intimacy. The both really need it.
Despite the appearance of old Nazis and demented sadists (why do European films keep flogging the Nazis as villains, let’s have some Serbs or Belarusian’s for a change), the story works because Noomi Rapace is magnificent as Lisbeth.
No wonder that on all of the awards shows she made a point of being a glamorous as possible. Every actress who plays a weird character wants to say, “look at me, I’m really beautiful and sexy and quite normal.” Just once I’d like an actress to keep in character as the witch or jezebel she played. We’d like her better; she’d get more work. Look at Bette Davis, who made a whole career out of playing Bette Davis.
THE GOOD GIRL
Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly, Tim Blake Nelson, Zooey Deschanel
THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD
John Malkovich, Colin Hanks
When I was a very young producer I did a film about a comedian. He was the star of a show within the movie. The director and I finished our cut with the comedian ending his act. The studio executives ordered us to change it. “The main character is the innocent girl drawn into the showbiz world,” they said. “You’ve got to end on her or you’re abandoning the main character.” We followed orders. The film stank. They were wrong. She may have been the main character in the script, but thing had changed. Movies leap from emotional moment to emotional moment; scripted logic takes a seat in the last row.
The Great Buck Howard has a similar problem. Troy (Colin Hanks) is the young innocent who signs on as a “gofer” for Buck Howard, the world’s greatest mentalist (as in go fer coffee, go fer cigarettes). Buck insists he is not a magician, he is a “mentalist” and he goes from cow town to prairie city playing his show and ending with his signature trick: asking the audience to pick one person to hide Buck’s pay for the night. Buck bets his salary he can walk among them and pick the person. And he always does. It brings down the house.
The Great Buck Howard is fascinating until you get to the end. Because the guy the story follows at the end is Troy, not Buck. No! No! They got it wrong! Buck (John Malkovich) is the compelling character. If we can’t learn how Buck did the trick, at least let us learn why we can’t know it. It’s nice that Troy gets his life together, but it is not satisfying.
See this movie for John Malkovich’s brilliant performance that never let’s you tire of him doing the Buck act. Also see it to better understand a lesson in moviemaking. And finally, see it because it is really interesting and based on a real character. How did he do that trick?
Kolya Spiridonov, Maria Kuznetsova, Nikolai Reutov
A six-year-old boy alone in the Russian countryside searching for his mother is not just another road movie. Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov) is an unwanted child in an Oliver Twist style Russian children’s home.
He’s slated for adoption by a nice Italian couple when he gets the notion that his mother is alive somewhere out there and would take him back if only he could find her. With the help of the other kids, he sneaks a look at his records and finds clues to where to go.
True to Dickens, the older kids in the home have long resorted to stealing and prostitution to get by. Vanya’s survival skills are well honed. He steals his records and sets off by train and by foot over a giant swath of Russian countryside on a mission to find his natural mother. Pursuing him are Madam (Maria Kuznetsova ) and Grisha (Nikolai Reutov). (Some reviews call Grisha “Gregori,” go figure). To them Vanya represents a big fat payment from the Italian couple. But the kid is crafty at braving corrupt authorities and escaping assorted dangers.
Too bad this isn’t a kid’s movie. Pampered western kids might have a few nightmares seeing what Vanya goes through, but maybe it would teach them something about life. The movie is thoroughly adult and never lets up. The amazing thing about The Italian and about Charles Dickens is 150 years hasn’t made much difference. Kids are still mistreated, still sold like commodities by unscrupulous guardians, and still thrust into the horrors of life without, food, shelter, or parenting. The subject is often covered in documentaries but Andrey Kravchuk’s film is all the more real for being drama and (we assume) fiction.
But then, Dickens wrote fiction too, and his was more real and more effective than any reformer pamphleteering of the time. The Italian is a good example of the power of fiction to be real.
THE KILLING ROOM
Chloe Sevigny, Timothy Hutton
THE KITE RUNNER
Khalid Abdalla, Shaun Toub, Homayoun Ershadi
The short list of films shot in Afghanistan includes The Kite Runner, Kandahar, and The Horsemen. All are journey films, but The Horseman is about travels in country, whereas the other two are travels to the country. In The Kite Runner, Amir leaves California for his homeland, honor bound to find redemption for a horrible mistake of his youth.
The core of the story is this: Amir was born Pashtun. That means he is entitled to everything. His childhood friend Hassan was born Hazara: meaning he is entitled to nothing. Understanding this starts to make some sense of Afghani tribal society and the winless war we fight against the Taliban.
The story that peels like an onion: exposing new layers and filled with tears. Amir learns the secret of his childhood relationship with Hassan, and what he must do to redeem himself. There’ more to The Kite Runner than just seeing the movie. Do a search in Netflix for the 1971 film, The Horsemen, starring Omar Sharif (it is so rare that Amazon and eBay sell copies for five times the normal price). The Horsemen was shot in Afghanistan long before the Russians invaded, and long before the Taliban even had a name.
Seeing the rough, tribal way of life among primitive peoples (with Omar Sharif playing an Afghan) is an ethnographic experience. Add to that the artificial legs in Kandahar, and the brutal sodomy of the Taliban in The Kite Runner and you begin to understand a country few in the West have bothered to know. And then read Robert D. Kaplan’s “Soldiers of God” and Rory Stewart’s “The Places In Between.” And then see The Kite Runner.
Catalina Saavedra, Claudia Celedon, Anita Reeves, Mariana Loyola
Hattie McDaniel said "Better to play a maid than be a maid" and this applies to Catalina Saavedra as well. She acts the part of Raquel, the maid to a family of wealthy Chileans who seem to play all the time and fret about having breakfast ready in bed.
Catalina has actually played several maid roles through her career on Chilean television. Which leads to the question nobody wants to ask: what is the future for an actress with a dumpy body and Indian features in a culture that worships light skin and curves like Blanca Lewin (if you want to see all her curves watch En la Cama on MovieWithMe).
The answer doesn't need to be said. The class divides of many South American countries make The Maid both a contemplation on the career of this very talented actress as well as the lives of the upper classes.
Pilar, the mother of the family (Claudia Celedon) keeps her brood together and manages meals and household chores (all done by servants). Her husband is a cheerful academic who goes to his study each night to build model ships. It is a perfect expression of the idle rich that director Sebastian Silva is portraying for us. In fact, this first feature of Silva is based on his experience growing up in just the type of family portrayed here.
Perhaps his path to filmmaking is echoed in the storyline. Raquel sabotages attempts by the family to install a new maid. Sonia (Anita Reeves) is locked out of the house and has to crawl over the roof. But third maid Lucy (Mariana Loyola) is a free spirit who rises above Raquel's wrath to show her the path toward personal empowerment.
It's a small step but enough to free Raquel from belonging to a family that will never have her as a member and start searching for small joys and pleasures that can bring her some fulfillment of her own. That's the message of The Maid, and it is a good one.
THE MAN WHO COPIED
Lazaro Ramos, Leandra Leal, Luana Piovani, Pedro Cardoso, Carlos Cunha Filho
Wood Harrelson, Ben Foster, Samantha Morton
The true historians of war are gravediggers. By the time their battle begins the others have all ended. The smoke has cleared. All that is left is a lot of questions without answers. Shakespeare employed a couple of these shovelers in Hamlet.
Modern times demand a more psychological approach. The Messenger is about Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), just retuned from Iraq and assigned to be an army Casualty Notification Officer. He works in a two-man team with hard ass Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). Their job is to drive around notifying dead soldier’s wives and parents that their lovers and sons have bought the big one.
Owen Moverman directs from his own script; and the film has a writerly feel. It’s not so much the drama of war’s nihilism, like Hurt Locker, as it is a mindful reflection.
If you ever want a downer evening try double billing The Messenger with Gardens of Stone. The latter is Francis Coppola’s 1987 film about men assigned to the ceremonial burial details at Arlington Nation Cemetery (during the Viet Nam War).
The first movie notifies the next of kin, the second movie blows the trumpet and folds the flag as the coffins slide into the ground. Both are very good films. Together they offer a requiem for America’s recent war adventures.
We can hope The Messenger is not damage Moverman’s career the way Gardens of Stone was for Coppola’s. In Coppola’s case it was not the movie, it was the making of the movie. During the filming, Francis’s son Gio (Gian Carlo) was killed in a gruesome accident. The speeding motorboat in which he was a passenger passed under a towline and he was beheaded.
Coppola retreated into his Silverfish video command trailer and never came out. He directed the rest of the picture in seclusion. Each day word came from the unseen director for set ups and shots of military burials.
An experience like that is ample reason to lose your love of making films. Gardens of Stone was (in my opinion) the last great chancy subject for Coppola. Afterward he settled into another Godfather sequel and a lot of executive producer credits. The few films he has actually directed since are minor works that smell of easy money.
Owen Moverman is luckier. Or is he? There was no personal tragedy we know of while making his death trip film. But the writer-director’s worldview is a tad mawkish. His Casualty Notification Officers must offer emotional justification as they act out the futility of war. To make them emotionally interesting, Will has to have a love affair with a soldier’s widow, Jena (Samantha Morton).
Coppola was felled by a bizarre personal tragedy. Moverman seems to hunt bizarre emotional situations on screen.
Look at his past writing credits like Jesus’ Son, Face, Married Life, and The Big Blow you feel he’s a kinky dude. Where he goes next is going to be interesting. Where he has been with The Messenger is certainly worth experiencing as long as you’re not feeling suicidal.
Felix Van Groeningen
Kenneth Vanbaeden, Valentijn Dhaenens, Koen De Graeve, Wouter Hendrickx, Johan Heldenbergh, Bert Haelvoet, Gilda De Bal
All Belgium is divided into two parts: both equally disgusting. Wallonia is the French speaking south and Flanders is the Dutch speaking north.
Memorable moments in the south include the man made tourist hill that desecrates the battlefield of Waterloo. The north features stinky rail stations, diesel fumes, and one excellent national dish: French fries.
It is no wonder Belgium filmmakers produce mainly comedies. The whole country is a bad joke. In Paris they don’t tell Polish jokes, they tell Belgium jokes.
In this maze of train tracks, unpronounceable town names, and badly poured concrete; director Felix Van Groeningen introduces us to the Strobbes. Four grown brothers, their mother, and a thirteen-year-old son of one of the brothers make up this household.
Activates include beer drinking, swearing, dressing up as women, drinking, naked bike races, drinking, and trying to get that final gulp before the shakes hit you so bad you can’t hold your glass.
Finding humor in all this is Van Groeningen’s art and he does it very well. At first you want young Gunther (Kenneth Vanbaeden) to escape. Later you think, escape to what? The adult version of Gunther (Valentijn Dhaenens) still lives by the railroad tracks and is poor, but now he is an author writing about this brilliant time in his life that we see in flashbacks.
How can you hate guys who make fun of the prim social worker sent to check on young Gunther when her name is Miss Fockaday? The film is like a Sunday afternoon in a roadhouse bar where you might as well join the party because they’re having such a good time.
Kal Penn, Tabu, Jacinda Barrett, Brooke Smith, Irrfan Khan
Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Betty White, Oscar Nunez
Sandra Bullock is the actress equivalent of the guy who sits on the corner with a sign that says, “will work for food.” If you look through her credits she’s done everything accept play a convict on death row. The sheer volume of movies makes her always surprising. You never know where she’ll turn up next and so many are bad it is always a surprise when one works.
Who knew the girl from Speed has a great sense of timing and physical comedy? There are many scenes in The Proposal where the gags are worthy of Lucille Ball (see The Long Long Trailer, 1954). There is heat between her and Ryan Reynolds, even though she overplays the part of the frigid executive.
Story: striving workaholic publishing executive finds she will be deported to her native country (Canada) unless she finds an answer quickly. The answer is to marry her assistant.
The name Billy Wilder is fading fast but his spirit is alive and well in The Proposal. Part screwball comedy, part Taming of the Shrew, this movie is so much better when you look inside it rather than just looking at it as another Sandra Bullock bollocks.
I’m always intrigued by the mechanics of how these films work. Billy Wilder had it down to a formula, and if you deviate too much you are in trouble. The Proposal runs into problems because the first act is too long, the second act (the family’s idea to have them get married that weekend) is too short, and the third act (realizing he actually loves her ) is too predictable.
So these films terrible or brilliant depending on who writes, directs, and stars. If it were (the long departed) team of Billy Wilder and IAL Diamond, it would be called a classic. Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses) is great at timing and manages to stoke some heat between Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. Peter Chiarelli delivers the flawed screenplay but it’s too easy to blame the poor writer.
But what are we going to do now that there is no Billy Wilder around to make these movies? As someone said when the master of screwball, Ernst Lubitsch died, ” no more Lubitsch, and worse, no more Lubitsch movies.”) The Proposal is a worthy addition to the genre and so much better than the quick dismissal given it by critics. Watching these movies is not about knowing the cliches and knowing where it is going: it is about the joy of getting there. Read Conversations with Billy Wilder by Cameron Crowe, and then see The Proposal.
Truc “Charlie” Nquyen
Johnny Nguyen, Thanh Van Ngo, Veronica Ngo, Dustin Nguyen
Some movies don’t work, but have enough good stuff in them to fry a couch potato for an hour and a half. We’re in Vietnam, 1920’s, during the era of French Colonial rule. Anti-French rebellions are starting to shake the county and the French employ an undercover Vietnamese agent to assassinate the head of the resistance.
No one tells him two important things about the assignment: first, he’s going to see all the terrible consequences of French rule on his own people. Second, he’s going to fall in love with the beautiful daughter of the resistance leader while he’s plotting to assassinate him.
A knockout of a daughter, a tortured journey, continually challenging moral assumptions about the French: this is challenging to any braveheart. But forget romance and politics. There is only one plot stew that can cook in an Asian adventure movie: action.
Get another beer from the fridge, heat some frozen spring rolls in the microwave, and don’t miss the action scenes. The art of The Rebel is in the stunts, and these are tops in imagination and execution. You won’t learn much meaningful history about French rule in Indochina, but you will learn it’s been a fucked up country for a long time. Maybe the current era of tourist beaches and time share condos in Ho Chi Min City is actually the best.
THE ROAD (+ GLEN AND RANDA)
Viggo Mortsensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron
Why does every post-apocalypse movie always feature abandoned cars strewn along the highways like a used car lot hit by a tornedo? Are we supposed to believe that the end of mankind climaxed with a demolition derby? Any news report of people freezing to death in the mountains are roasting to death in the desert usually has them quietly pulling off the road and waiting calmly for the end.
Hollywood movies believe that the dying will careen at top speed, slamming into other unfortunates in a race to destroy themselves. Or maybe it is just cheap set design to buy wrecked cars and cover them with rust paint and dust.
See I Am Legend for the big budget version of the road wreck of civilization. See The Road for the economy model. But don’t see The Road because you want a good movie experience. It is a dog. Bad story, bad acting, and boring.
So why review it here? Because it is a good contrast that was one of the best post apocalypse movies. Glen and Randa, a 1971 gem by Jim McBride. The Road is about a father and son traveling through a grim landscape pocked with lots of broken cars. The message of this mess is: the future without people will be kind of boring.
Glen and Randa trip through a land stripped of all but a hardy few who have survived by returned to primitivism. There’s The Magician (Gary Goodrow) who pushes and old wheelbarrow filled with glowing embers. He’s a magician because he's got fire. Anybody who wants some has to barter with him. The lovers, Glen (Steven Curry) and Randa (Shelly Plimpton), are sort of Adamish and Evee hippy types who (as I remember) fuck in a tree and wander into abandoned Interstate rest stop restaurants for shelter.
When the movie was made the hippie movement was in full flower. Make Love Not War was written on every tie-dye t-shirt. Looking at the film now, it’s more of an ecological statement about our excesses. It has something to say whereas The Road makes only guttural sounds.
One scene I’ll never forget from Glen and Randa has them walking along the shoulder of a former Interstate highway. Randa needs a piece of string or wire for something (pardon my memory). Glen says there must be piece somewhere here, and starts searching the ground. Randa asks how he knows he will find it. Glen answers, “Because there’s everything everywhere.”
What he’s saying is that our wasteful society has thrown away so much, especially along American highways, that you can find whatever you need. And it’s true! Need a piece of wire to jimmy a lock? A length of rope to tie the trunk? A plastic bag to hold wet swimsuits? A cup to pour water in the radiator?
All you’ve got to do is hunt along the highway shoulder for a couple of minutes and you’ll see it's true: everything is everywhere.
Post apocalypse America will be a place much like modern day American. It will be drowning it the shit we’ve thrown away for a century, and foraging primitives will depend on this bounty to survive. Nobody will care about stripping car hulks. The man who finds a beer can opener will be king.
It’s easy to see a copy of The Road but don’t. It’s tough to find a copy of Glen and Randa but worth the wait.
Sadly, you won’t find Glen and Randa in Netflix, but Amazon says they have a few copies.
Glen and Randa, (USA1971, 93 min. dir: Jim McBride, cast: Steven Curry (Glen), Shelly Plimpton (Randa), Garry Goodrow (Magician).
Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Scout Taylor-Compton, Michael Shannon
When the great history of rock is written it will be a two volume boxed set with the history of sex. The two are both inspired by the same primitive African rhythms. Louisiana Cajun settlers banned blacks from dancing to a song they called Les Haricots because the beat was too suggestive of fucking. A century later the phrase “les haricots” was corrupted and shortened to “zericots” and then “zydeco.” And with that name an early form of rock and roll evolved.
What better film subject than an all girl band struggling with music, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, lesbian love and growing up poor in the San Fernando Valley. You can’t make a bad movie of this even though Floria Sigimondi’s style seems oddly detached from the emotionalism crying to be seen.
Even though Joan Jett prints her own Sex Pistols tee shirt, there is no nudity, penetration, and damn little masturbation in The Runaways. Too bad, it could have been a musical debauch.
Despite this lack, the story of an all girl band making it in the 70s is always interesting. And the rise from trailer trash to primo stash is fascinating. Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) is brooding, pensive and bound for stardom far beyond anyone’s dreams. Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) is brilliant at being doomed.
The one guy who makes a difference in this movie is Kim (Michael Shannon) the manager who will steal for you and steal from you. But without him the Runaways would never have made it; or at least that is what the film suggests.
The best thing director Sigimondi does is let them play the music (her directing background is music videos). When the band jams, the power of their sound makes up for a lot of script shortcomings and pushes a sound that made them stars.
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.
THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES
Juan Jose Campanella
Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil
If Ricardo Darin were an American actor, he’d be getting all those Liam Neeson roles. Obsessive, frantic, single minded but never quite getting the girl. His films on Movie With Me include Son of the Bride and Nine Queens. The Secret in Their Eyes is another amazing addition to the list. (Both Son of the Bride and The Secret in Their Eyes were directed by Juan Jose Campanella; a master who is always emotionally on target)
Here Darin is a retired justice department investigator writing a book on an old case that went cold. A woman was brutally raped and murdered when he was a young agent working under department head Irene Menendez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil). She was the upper class lovely who got her superior position after returning from her Ivy League education in the US. The last thing she wanted to do at the time was jeapordize her career because of suspicions about this one case. Especially because she was atracted to Benjamin (Ricardo Darin) and he to her. Both resisted their feelings because of the difference in their ages and the class barrier between them.
But now it is many years later. She’d risen to the top of the justice department, and he is grey-haired and ready for his pension. What could have been between them was never was. But the old never-solved case still links them together. And that is enough to light the flame between them once again and bring them to admit two things: they love each other and always did; their passion for justice has never slackened.
Together they open up the can of worms that is Argentina’s answer to the Holocaust: the years when the military junta ruled the country (called The Dirty War), and “disappeared” tens of thousands of people to unmarked graves. It was a ten year reign of terror from which the country, or at least the country’s filmmakers, have yet to recover. Like the Germans, everyone knew and didn’t know. Everyone wanted to save themselves even if it meant turning their back onon friends.
The Secret in Their Eyes opens an old wound and new passion. That it what it makes it such an interesting mix of emotions between Darin and Villamil (she’s in Life Accroding to Muriel, also on Movie With Me). Some fires never die, some embers burn forever – is the old saying. An intricate story and a fine range of emotions give heart to an old love made new again in this very excellent movie.
Fanny Ardant, Ania Bukstein, Michal Shtamier
Lots of settings for lesbian relationships, but an Israeli girls’ religious boarding school is unique.
The daughter of an Hassidic scholar refuses to marry the sexless, boring pupil of her father and goes away to boarding school instead. There she meets another student who will be her lifelong friend and sexual companion.
Anouk (Fanny Ardant) is dying of some unspecified cancer and, as a school assignment; the two girls have volunteered to look in on her. She’s the driving force of the film because she offers a life view that is vibrant and intense.
The experience with Anouk becomes enlightening to the girls’ own lives, freeing them as they try to free her from her past (she went to prison for a crime of violence). Eventually she dies, and the girls discover their love for each other. When one chooses to get married, the other is overcome with grief. The fiancee, who knows about the relationship, tells them that he can live with the secret, and the bond between the girls can continue within the marriage.
Wow, this is heavy stuff for orthodox Jews. A culture that can’t even show a bare ankle is showing every emotion. The brilliance of Nesher’s film is it never departs from being human. The girls are schoolgirls. Their dates are klutzes. The scene where they double date and the guy gets up and takes the table cloth with him is as funny as any Adam Sandler movie.
Even though Fanny Ardant’s part as the dying muse looks kind of melodramatic on paper, it plays beautifully on film. And the mikvah scene (ritual bath) with the three of them naked is tasteful and natural (see clip). Too bad for the porn industry. If there was a market for Hassid Porn this scene could spawn a classic. But The Secrets is a very tasteful, emotional movie that you can have fun watching but you can’t make fun of.
THE SKY CRAWLERS
The creator of The Sky Crawlers only got one thing wrong: the kids actually go up in the planes. If you substitute UAS drones (unmanned aerial system) for fighter planes, and joy sticks for throttles, this film is deadly accurate about our own future. The pilots, male and female, are trapped in an endless adolescence that provides the sharp responses and reaction times needed for split second aerial dogfights. But they lack the emotional resources needed for love and maturity. Sounds like the ideal modern soldier, doesn’t it? They are called “kildren” in this future age where a perpetual war rages against who knows who? Does it really make a difference anymore? Pilot Yuichi falls in love with his new commander, but he is flustered and shy. In the skies, however, he is a demon.
The great films about pilot’s lives have all been made except this one. The dizzying aerial dogfights in animation are so intense they are almost three-dimensional. The story in between the aerial sequences is full of boredom and dreams. Dreams of love, dreams of life beyond the squad room. But reality is the never-ending series of life-days measured out between climbing into the fighters and doing battle in brilliant skies where only death tumbles you back.
Mamoru Oshii gave us Ghost in the Shell, parts I and II, and also Jin Roh (also reviewed on MovieWithMe.com). In each of his films there is a simmering, romantic nihilism that suggests our world has removed the possibility enduring love. In Jin Roh, the romance is between a police-trained high tech killer and a girl whose best friend was killed by him.
Existential Japanese anime has no equivalent in US films, yet its roots are probably our own film noir movies. Watch as it slowly unfolds with the same sense of destiny as these darkly intense movies from our own movie past.
THE STONING OF SORAYA M.
Mozhan Marno, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jim Caviezel
Jim Caviezel played Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. In The Stoning of Soraya M. he plays a reporter happening upon a story about a modern woman who must walk her own steps to her village's version of the crucifixion. This actor's personal passion expressed in his adopting of special needs children, and his support of politically incorrect causes; makes his participation in this singular, powerful movie all the more interesting.
A movie is what it is on screen: that is everything. Or is it? The writer/director of The Stoning of Soraya M. is known for taking on non PC subjects and making statements of personal conviction. Both Caviezel and director Cyrus Nowrasteh are drawn to a story that defies audience sensitivities to paint truth, harshness, courage and sadness. Soraya (Mozhan Marno) brings dignity to her own death.
Mozhan too, is no stranger to speaking out. She starred in a one women show 9 Parts of Desire about women in war-torn Iraq. The play, written by Heather Raffo (also the title of a book about the Middle East by Geraldine Brooks), comes from Ali ibn Abu Taleb, an early leader and scholar of Islam who said, "God created sexual desire in ten parts: then he gave nine parts to women and one to men."
Soraya M's husband accuses her of adultery so he can be free to marry a younger woman he has found in a nearby city. That the punishment for adultery is death by stoning doesn't disturb him. Nor does he flinch at throwing the first stone at the head of the mother of his children as she waits defenseless: buried to her waist in the village square.
It's easy to eject the DVD after seeing The Stoning of Soraya M. and condemn Iran as a primitive country driven by the intractable dogma of the Ayatollahs. But Iran is, in may ways, actually quite permissive: if you are a man.
Soraya M. is about that one part of desire granted to men and how the rage, feared impotence and lust for domination over those other nine parts propels men towards madness and grisly murder. Ali ibn Abu Taleb did not restrict his observation to Muslims. Violence towards women can happen anywhere, and it does.
THE SYRIAN BRIDE
Clara Khoury, Hiyam Abbass, Makram J. Khoury
Marrying within your faith means finding your husband-to-be on a TV news show. Your parents can’t come to your wedding and you can never come back. Ethnic Chinese? Hutus? No, Israelis. The Druze is an ancient Arab tribe of warriors and religious independents that got caught between the lines of Syria and Israel in the1967 war.
Since then, they’ve lived in a no-man’s land between the two countries. They are recognized as citizens of Israel (they trace their lineage and religion to Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses). Because they are recognized by Israel, the Syrians won’t let them in unless they renounce their Israeli citizenship. But they must marry within their religion and the Druze singles scene is in Syria (actually, there are so few Druze they have their own world-wide dating site, DruzeCafe.com. Take a look at some Druze cuties).
Director Eran Riklis builds his story on the Catch-22 that plagues the Golan Druze. She lives the Golan. He lives in Damascus where he hosts a Syrian TV show she watches. They’ve only met by phone and mail. To marry, she must renounce her Israeli citizenship, and walk into the no man’s land between the borders. Her only witness will be a UN inspector. Once married, she will enter Syria and never be able to come back home. It would be funny if it were not so sad.
Leaving everything you know for an unknown life with a stranger is the dramatic conflict on which Riklis builds his story. In Lemon Tree, also reviewed on MovieWithMe.com, the conflict is: the price of security is walling out humanity. Both films star the amazing Hiyam Abbass, who seems to have carved out a career as the long-suffering Arab who wears the weariness of generations on her face.
The Syrian Bride, The Lemon Tree, Laila’s Taxi (different director) are all political films that explore society, not sociology. As director Riklis said to Tikkun Magazine, “I see myself as a relevant director. I believe in movies that relate to political and social circumstances. I think it’s impossible, particularly in Israel, to say that what happens around you is of no interest to you, that you are an artist and that you make movies like the Americans do. In Israel, you have to acknowledge that you live in a very complex and problematic region.” If there is hope for a peace plan in Israeli, bet on the filmmakers.
THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE
Why is it that anything done in animation gets a free ride on story? Words like charming, delight, and inventive are always attached. No one seems to care if it makes sense.
Okay, The Triplets of Belleville is a wonder to look at, and there’s a lot of social commentary in the drawings. The city of Belleville is probably Montreal, and the French bicycle race puffing up the mountains is probably the Tour de France’s annual push up Mount Ventoux in Province. If this is so clear, why is the story so convoluted?
Animators are visual people, but rarely writers. The great success of classic Walt Disney animated films was their stories. The same is true for the best of Pixar. These companies hire top writers. Auteur is not in their language. Sylvain Chomet is an auteur. The credits of his films usually show he did everything but wash the floors.
Which brings up another one of his films, The Illusionist. The story of this one is more straight forward, but equally flawed. A fading music hall magician is befriended by the maid who scrubs the floors of the hotel/pub in a small Scottish village where he performs. She follows him to Edinburgh, where his fortunes sink and she blossoms into a beautiful young woman. The story of their moments between his descent and her ascent are wonderfully emotional. But the ending leaves us wondering if we couldn’t know a little more about them and get a clue of what it all meant.
Both films are lovely to look at but unsatisfying. Where are Disney songs like “Someday My Prince Will Come” or moments of horror like Dumbo’s mother burning in a train car or Bambi’s father telling him “your mother isn’t coming back anymore.” Chomet tries to toe the line between sentiment and art like a tightrope walker. He can’t balance. Sappy sentiment wins every time. Denying it only muddies his story. An old saying in Hollywood is: “if you come to the circus, don’t complain that it smells of elephant shit.”
Beautiful pictures are enough of a reason to see Triplets (and catch The Illusionist). But this is no reason for critics and filmies to moon over Chomet like he is a genius wrapped in gossamer. He’s an artist: meaning he draws really well. But telling tales well is not what you learn in art school. If he wants to strut the path that Disney blazed he ought to find a writer partner.
THE WHITE RIBBON
Christian Friedel, Ernst Jacobi,Lionie Benesch, Susanne Lothar, Urlich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Detlev Buck.
Director Michael Heneke is not good on conclusions. The Piano Teacher, Funny Games, and Cache are fascinating to watch but frustrating. So it is with The White Ribbon.A small German town witnesses a horse and riser felled by a cruel trip wire, a woman falling to her death on a rotten plank, a man hanged upside down in the mill. What does it all mean? God’s warning about the war to come that will change life here forever? The scenes are brilliant, the intellectual postulations lofty. I only wish Michael Heneke would bevel his story with a finer corner at the end.
His trademark has become the fade out and credits while his audience is left to puzzle the meaning. You can’t but be caught up in the story, the setting, the characters and fine performances by all. As if to emphasize the small rooms and camped world of the story, Heneke rarely moves the camera.
Take a look at the scene where Eva’s father (Detlev Buck) grills the school teacher (Christian Friedel) about his intentions to marry his daughter. We rarely cut between faces and reactions, but the charged emotions fly around the room.
Shooting in black and white adds to the period feel, as does the weary voice of the teacher as an old man (Ernst Jacobi) telling us his recollections of the events we witness.
I’d love to put Heneke in a room with a writer and see who comes out alive. It might be another hanging or garroting by trip wire.
Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyoko Koizumi, Yu Koyanagi, Kai Inowaki
The world plunged into financial crises in 2008 but Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata was already a testament to what was about to happen. Released in 2008, the film follows one struggling Tokyo family from job loss to slow family disintegration.
Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his white-collar job but cannot face his wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) with the news. Each day he dresses in a suit and tie for work and leaves home with his briefcase. She learns the truth when she sees him standing in a food line for free lunch at a local park along with other unemployed salary men.
Her eldest son, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi), finds his exit from the household by joining the American army under a new recruitment offer for Japanese. He’s promptly sent to the Middle East battlefields. The youngest son, Kenji (Kai Inowaki), observes all this while trying to sneak away and take piano lessons that the family cannot afford.
In the end, at his brilliant recital, there is at least hope for something; even though the family can not pay for the schooling he will need to realize his musical potential.
Though set in middle class Japan, there is a resonance to Where God Left His Shoes (MovieWithMe.com) because both films sketch the desperation that comes when there is no way out. The events of 2008 are still rolling over, receding slowly and revealing the debris like a retreating tsunami. Both films seem to ask, where do you go when there is nowhere left to go?
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.
TURN LEFT AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Neta Garty, Liraz Charchi, Aure Atika
When Helen Thomas, the longest running White House journalist ever, told the Israelis that it was time to leave Palestine and go back to Poland:nobody protested they weren't from Poland. Instead they labeled her an Alzheimered anti-Semite and force her to quit. Too bad. Nothing important ever happens at White House press briefings, and at least the room looked fuller with her in the front row.
But once again the Israelis lost a public relations opportunity. If they were cool they would have sent Helen a DVD of Turn Left at the End of the World. We all know the story of the Holocaust survivors finding refuge in Israel, but who knows about Moroccans and Indians? Nobody every said to the Jews, "Go back to India." And yet many India Jews are descended form the lost tribe of Manasseh, conquered by the Assyrians back in BC days and not taking any messages for the next 2000 years.
In the 1960s Israel was the refuge and hope for Jews from all over the world. Avi Nesher focuses his film on a tiny outpost at the edge of the Negev desert where the government shunted new arrivals. When we arrive the small kibbutz has already been inhabited by Moroccans and is receiving new families from India. They are all immigrants, all Jews. But as everyone knows, put two Jews in a room and you have an argument.
The Moroccans see themselves as French, and the Indians are more British than the British. They bristle at working on the production line in the bottle plant (the one industry), and form a cricket team. The Moroccans, being French, strike the plant and complain about how they are underpaid. The Moroccans speak French, the Indians speak English, and nobody speaks Hebrew very well.
Avi Nesher makes this small, remote settlement a paradigm for the confusion and vitality of this new country. A big part of the vitality is sex. Aure Atika, the very sexy French actress (Movie with Me: The Beat My Heart Skipped) is the Moroccan widow who starts an affair with the Indian father of her daughter (Nicole's) new friend. Meanwhile Nicole seduces the local schoolteacher, Asaf. (see the clip).
The movie advances with several stories, like a good novel. The characters slowly learn Hebrew and understand they have left their identities and cultures somewhere beyond the desert. The only thing important now is what they are becoming: Israelis. The future is everything and, if they can only settle the strike at the bottle plant, it is very hopeful.
Maybe the Israelis should see Turn Left at the End of the World along with Helen Thomas. It is about the quilting of a new nation. Today that tapestry seems threadbare.
Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson
For every boy who every wanted a Lionel train set, this movie is the present under the Christmas tree. Tony Scott’s big bicep film is replete with big engines, tough men, and enough train talk to satisfy the most finicky foamer (the name railroad pros give to amateur train lovers).
The story has been told before. In 1962 a locomotive broke away from a rail yard in East Syracuse, NY and got half way to Rochester. Kurosawa announced his plans to shoot the story. He never did, but his script was the basis for Runaway Train with Jon Voight. In 2005 engine 8888 broke away from Toledo, Ohio and made it to Kenton before being subdued. Railroaders called that engine the Crazy Eights. For years after, people in Ohio played the number 8888 in the lottery.
The power unit in Unstoppable is labeled 777 after that Crazy Eights engine. It breaks out of a yard in Pennsylvania and goes on an unstoppable rampage on the main line until Denzel Washington and Chris Pine can figure out how to control it. The unstoppable train is, of course, stoppable. We we know that from the beginning. But the economy of story telling and the power of Tony Scott’s streamlined visuals make the journey worth the predictable ending.
Making Unstoppable is probably as good a story as is on screen. Anyone who shoots a train movie should receive an award for frustration, patience, and persistence. You can’t turn these beasts around for another shot like a car. Every move takes hours. Even though the gags are done at slower speeds and made to look faster by computer re-imaging, every stunt is life threatening. A helicopter pilot was killed filming Runaway Train in Alaska.
Major railroads don’t want film companies on their tracks, so filmmakers need to find a little spur line with its own engines. Then you have to rent your own train of cars (called a ”consist” in railroad lingo). When it’s all over you’ll talk like a railroad man and no matter how accurate you’ve tried to be, the foamers will tear your movie apart on their blogs by noting every inconsistency. Want to see the mistakes in Unstoppable? Go to TrainOrders.com.
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.
Sarala, Lisa Ray, Ronica Sajnani
All movies shot in India are fabulous on a 46-inch flat screen. Water makes you want to swim in the Ganges. Seeing Water it’s hard to imagine this sacred river is filled with pee, chicken feathers, dead cows, and worse. Sacred sewer is probably a better description.
But Deepa Mehta is not a filmmaker focused on ecology. His river is serene even though the people who live along it are troubled, spiritual and venal. This doesn’t include Kalyani (Lisa Ray) or her hopeful lover, Kunti (Ronica Sajnani). Both are beautiful.
And even though the movie takes place in 1938 against the rise of Gandhi and Lisa Ray plays a prostitute; she looks like she has her hair styled at Jean Louis David. Ronica Sajnami wears three-day whiskers a la mode. I don’t think Indians in 1938 were anything but clean-shaven.
But then, I don’t want to seem petty.
The story is about Chuyia (Sarala), who was wed in an arranged childhood marriage and saw her old husband die soon after. She’s carted off to the windows’ ashram where she is supposed to live the rest of her life. Her she has her head shaved and meets the group of flinty old harpies she must live with and who try to crush her childish yen for freedom and fun.
Kalyani befriends her. She’s the pretty one so the harpies have not shaved off her hair. This way they can make some money pimping out her sexual services to pay the rent. Wouldn’t you know, handsome Kunti falls in love with her without knowing she’s servicing his father?
There’s a lot that is good in Water, even though it’s fun to pick apart the plot contrivances and glamor excesses. Not the least of the important stuff is the rise of Gandhi, the awakening of women, the injustice of the caste system, and the transformation of the British colony to an independent state.
It’s also worth noting that Lisa Ray gives an impressive performance. For a Canadian girl who started as a swimsuit model and didn’t speak a word of Hindi (she learned for the film, but was later dubbed), Water is quite an accomplishment.
Vincent Lindon, Firat Ayverdi, Audrey Dana, Derya Ayverdi
There is a peculiar monument in an obscure traffic circle of Sangatte, France that looks like a giant electric shaver. It is actually one of the tunneling machines that burrowed the nearby channel tunnel to England. For immigrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, and North Africa it is as symbolic as the Statue of Liberty.
Sangatte and nearby Calais have become the jihad destination for armies of young men seeking passage to England and the promise of a better life. Their fantasy is hopping a train for the twenty-minute ride to British amnesty on the other side. The reality is you can’t hang on to a train going 160 miles an hour.
The next bet if the trains will kill you is the sea-going ferries that load trucks for England day and night at the port of Calais. But the police have CO2 detectors they can insert into the truck cargo areas to detect clandestine travelers. Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) and his companions try to smother themselves under plastic garbage bags to hide their breath. They fail.
So they become casualties of the immigration system that neither will legitimize them, nor send them back to their war torn countries. They are limbo people roaming the streets of Calais where residents are instructed it is against the law to help them.
Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) must get to England to save his lovely girlfriend Mini (Derya Ayverdi) from a forced marriage to her cousin. If he can’t get there by train or boat, he must swim. As crazy as it is; he is obsessed. Simon is the swim instructor at the municipal pool. Bilal seeks his lost love, Simon has just lost his soul mate: ex-wife Marion (Audrey Dana) has signed their divorce papers.
The improbably friendship between the embittered Frenchman and the romantic young Iraqi could easily descend into bathos, but it doesn’t. Nor does it end well for either of them. Welcome is anything but. And the point of Philippe Lioret’s provocative movie is that the imbalance of human suffering and aspiration knows no boundary.
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).
Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN
Maribel Verdu, Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna
Is this a coming of age movie for two teenage boys or a loss of innocence movie for a whole country? Sex is a big part of it (and Maribel Verdu does it so well). But there is one scene, never commented upon by the characters. The two teenage boys driving Luisa to the beach in hopes of fucking her pass police rounding up Mexican peasants. As the car passes, the police roughly line up the peasants in a scene where we fear the next image will be their execution. It is chilling, but the car drives on without comment. We want to say, “Stop so we can see what happens?”
Many films, like many songs, wear disguises. “Puff the Magic Dragon” has been a favorite children’s song but is really about the pleasures of smoking dope. “Ring Around the Rosie” is about death from the bubonic plague in 14th Century Europe. High Noon is about the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950’s. Bound for Glory argues for socialism in America. The creators of these works knew one thing: if you want to send a message, you are better wrapping it in entertainment.
The mystery of what lies beneath Y Tu Mama Tambien was answered by a film professor and historian, Ernesto R. Acevedo-Munoz. He saw references throughout the movie to class struggles between rich and poor in Mexico. Luisa (from Madrid) has the last name Cortes. Julio, the working class kid, is named Zapata. The rich boy’s first name is Tenoch. Cortes was the Spanish conqueror of Mexico. Zapata was the peasant who started a revolution. Tenoch is from Tenochtitlan; the Aztec name for Mexico City. Professor Acevedo-Munoz explains that rich politicians of the ruling PRI party often named their children Aztec names as a way of conveying upper class patriotism.
Once you catch on, you can find several more instances of class conflict in this sweet and sexy film. Julio’s sister studies sociology and supports the revolution in Chiapas. The boys are stopped in a Mexico City traffic jam caused by a political demonstration.
The Mexico of Y Tu Mama Tambien was going through a debt crisis, an uprising on its southern border, and a bloody attempt to unseat the corrupt right wing ruling party. Sometimes the only way to tell a serious story is to pretend it is something else that will prove popular enough for wide distribution. Those who understand will push farther to find the real message.
Ana Geislerova, Gyorgy Csehaimi
Do all of us want to walk through an unmarked door into a secret life better than the one we thought we wanted? Eliska/Hana has two names in Zelary because she has two lives. One is as the big city hospital nurse who assists her surgeon boyfriend in saving the life of a rough country peasant by giving him a transfusion of her own blood.
That is before the Gestapo gets wise to the hospital staff’s resistance activities. Suddenly, that night, she must flee. It has all been arranged. She will accompany the peasant laborer she helped save back to his mountain village. There she will pose as his wife until the war is over.
The best war movies are about uprooted people and the generous acts by strangers who preserve the flame of life and compassion. The best of these stories must sometimes age with the storytellers. Kveta Lagatova didn’t think of writing a book until she was in her 80s. Then she took out a story she had written thirty or forty years before, based on what she had heard when she was a schoolteacher in the isolated mountain region were Joza (Janda) takes his new bride, Hana (known as Eliska before she went into hiding).
“The characters there (in the mountains) have very sharp contours, that which elsewhere is not so well-defined” commented Kveta. Her book, Jozova Hanule, became a best seller in the Czech Republic and the basis of Zelary. Like Hana in the movie, Kveta witnessed a culture that hadn’t change is a century, and would soon disappear with the rush to modernity.
Zelray is a love story, large and romantic, about the most unlikely lovers in a place far removed from history. Yet it makes its own history. The tragedy of the ending, and Hana/Eliska’s return, reminds me of the ending of Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala. Both films confront their protagonists with the loss of something wild and free not only in the wilderness, but also in themselves. They know it can never be replaced. They mourn for themselves.
Their tragedy is ours too, because we’ve all joined a more civilized world. It is even more perplexing to us because our choice was also for survival: of a kind just as necessary as in the forests and mountains. Hana can never go back, and she knows it. Could Kveta Lagatova have written this book as a young woman? Kurosawa was in his sixties when he directed Dersu.
Perhaps only a lifetime lived through the 20th Century could connect the brutality of the Nazis-feared as the destroyers of civilization; to the destruction of nature and traditional life actually caused by civilization. These two films are my idea of an amazing double feature.