Mandel Maven's Nest Masterpiece Theater:
Movies as Medicine
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews
Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
This category is my inconsistent designation for serious and pseudo-serious films, those that succeed at being “Masterpieces” but don’t fit in my other arbitrary categories and those that aim to be serious but succeed only at being pretentious, as well as sober documentaries.
The Captain (Derr Hauptmann) (Notes: While the officers get entertained by two prisoners putting on an stereotyped, anti-Semitic vaudeville routine, their violence is not driven by ethnic or other hatreds, but by this system. The unit goes on to terrorize civilians. Exhilarated by vanquishing the (unarmed) deserters from the Reich (and fleeing real military police), “Herold’s Fast Court” takes to the road. They storm a town that was expecting liberation by the Allies, and the mayor is punished for his disloyalty. (Though, in a section that does go on too long it is a bit surprising that the women cabaret performers are still so welcoming to soldiers at this late point in the war.) With the smug officer from the opening of the film officiating, Herold and most of his unit face more consequences as war criminals, here and in the actuality at the hands of the restored military hierarchy, than most German soldiers did.) (7/26/2018)
Charm City (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (brief review at 2018 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/3/2018)
McQueen (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/19/2018)
Hey Ronnie Reagan (short) (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/27/2018)
The Feeling of Being Watched (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2018)
Dead Women Walking (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2018)
Charm City (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2018)
The Seagull (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2018)
House Two (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/3/2018)
The Teacher (Ucitelka) (My capsule “Best of 2017” review) (previewed at Film Forum) (12/21/2017)
Spielberg (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (previewed at 2017 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (12/3/2017)
Sea Sorrow (previewed at 2017 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (12/3/2017)
Cielo (previewed at 2017 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (12/3/2017)
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (12/2/2017)
Faces Places (Visages, villages) (11/29/2017)
1945 (My capsule “Best of 2017” review) (seen in 2017 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (10/27/2017)
The Force (briefly reviewed 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (updated 12/17/2017)
Machines (seen at MoMA’s 2017 Documentary Fortnight) (8/9/2017)
Black Code (previewed at 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/30/2017)
The Blood Is At The Doorstep (previewed at 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/30/2017)
Nowhere To Hide (previewed at 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/30/2017)
The Fencer (Miekkailija) (7/21/2017)
Cuba, Fatherland Or Death (Patria O Muerte) (previewed at 2016 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/14/2017)
Cinema Travellers (previewed at 2016 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/14/2017)
Karl Marx City (previewed at 2016 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/14/2017)
The Illinois Parables (previewed at 2016 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/14/2017)
13th (previewed at 2016 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/14/2017)
City of Ghosts and additional capsule review (previewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (7/7/2017;7/30/2017)
13 Minutes (Elser) (6/30/2017)
No Dress Code Required (Etiqueta NO Rigurosa) (Note: maybe their hair salon is well-known in Mexico, but there’s a gap in their recall of their first meeting and falling in love to how they set up their business together that I would have liked to know about more.) (previewed at 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (6/23/2017)
The Grown-Ups (Los Niños) (previewed at 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (6/23/2017)
Lost in Lebanon and additional review (previewed at 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (6/23/2017)
Dawson City – Frozen Time (previewed at 2016 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center courtesy of MoMA) (6/20/2017)
In Flint (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/11/2017)
The Foster Portfolio (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Wasted! The Story of Food Waste (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Warning: This Drug May Kill You (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
The Reagan Show (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
The Last Animals (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Sambá (previewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/15/2017)
The Departure (previewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/12/2017)
From False to Legal in One Take (De falso a legal una toma) (seen in On Resistance: International Avant-Garde Films & Videos 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)
Out There (documentary/fiction cross) (Notes on 9/11 reference) (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)
Silêncio (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)
After the Storm (Umi yori mo mada fukaku) (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) > (2/4/2017)
Chevalier - Best Woman-Directed Foreign-Language Film 2016
Bobby Sands: 66 Days (11/30/2016)
Blood on the Mountain (11/19/2016)
The Crossing (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/27/2016)
Do Not Resist (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/27/2016)
When Two Worlds Collide) (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/13/2016)
The Maias: Scenes from Romantic Life (Os Maias - Cenas da Vida Romântica) (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (6/16/2016)
Babai (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (6/4/2016)
Lampedusa in Winter (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (5/23/2016)
You Can Go (short) (seen at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/2/2016)
Tickling Giants (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/1/2016)
Solitary (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (reviewed at Film Society of Lincoln Center and at IFC Center) (5/1/2016)
Shadow World (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/30/2016)
After Spring (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/30/2016)
The Return (to be an episode of PBS’s POV) (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/2/2016)
Icaros: A Vision (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/1/2016)
Long Story Short (short seen in An Evening with Natalie Bookchin at MoMA’s 2016 Documentary Fortnight) (3/31/2016)
Gyre and Navigator in “Films by Bjorn Kammerer” (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)
The Tower (A Torre) (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)
The Lighted Field (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)
Lou Beth Zayma: What Eyes Are Pretending To See (Ce Que L’œil Pretend Voir) (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)
Abandoned Goods (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)
Maestà (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)
Pawel and Wawel (Pawel i Wawel) (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/8/2016)
Ozoners (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/8/2016)
Toponymy (Toponimia) (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/8/2016)
The Project of the Century (La obra del siglo) (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/8/2016)
I Am the People (Je suis le peuple) (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (1/31/2016)
Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom (Note: Netflix is streaming this in 50 countries, with narration in many languages. So while the protesters proudly claim that the demonstrations drew from all ethnic groups (there’s also a quick shot of a Jewish group), an American can’t tell what languages are being spoken, so one can only assume that included Russians. (The two martyrs are an Armenian and a Belorussian.) Similarly, several times participants enthusiastically recall people from other cities beyond the capital driving into the city with needed supplies; while some of the locales are quickly mentioned by name, it’s difficult for an American to gauge the distance or if any were from eastern Ukraine which is usually considered to be more pro-Russian than pro-European integration. The eloquent interviewees are seen during the protests and later reflectively walk the same blocks and plazas. (1/8/2016)
Censored Voices (a.k.a Siakh Lokhamim: Ha'slilim Ha'gnouzim (The Hidden Tapes: Soldiers Talk)) (previewed at 2015 Other Israel Film Festival) (12/30/2015)
The Pearl Button (El botón de nácar) (My edited capsule “Best of 2015” review) (12/20/2015)
Sembène! (Commentary on the missing Jewish women) (11/6/2015)
Labyrinth Of Lies (Im Labyrinth Des Schweigens) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (10/29/2015)
The Iron Ministry (previewed at Museum of Modern Art) (8/22/2015)
This Is My Land (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: Preserving Cultural Identity Under Stress at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/18/2015)
The Wanted 18 (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: NonViolence & Revolt at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/18/2015)
The Look Of Silence (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: Violence & Vigilantes at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (My capsule “Best of 2015” review) (previewed at 2014 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/19/2015)
Cartel Land (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: Violence & Vigilantes at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (previewed at 2015 Tribeca Film Festival) /see with Western (previewed at 2015 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (6/19/2015)
3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets /The Armor of Light (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: Violence & Vigilantes at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/19/2015)
Life Is Sacred (previewed Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: NonViolence & Revolt at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/18/2015)
Autism In Love (So, nu: my commentary on the putative Jewish woman) (previewed at 2015 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/16/2015)
In Transit (previewed at 2015 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: The photographer from New York turning his camera first on the scenery, then on the pregnant young woman seems like a stand-in for the late Maysles himself when it’s revealed, finally, that this is the last trip of his life. The age range includes rueful male and female oil boom workers and a marine entertaining a little kid with his tattoos, in ironic counterpoint to rambunctious kids playing war.) (4/16/2015)
Selma (Note: I distinctly remember watching Judgment at Nuremberg on TV, presumably on ABC the night of Bloody Sunday. But as a 12-year-old who grew up for over three decades without realizing that I was the same age as “the 4 little girls” because I didn’t consider my 12-year-old self “little”, I was evidently more struck at seeing my first movie about the Holocaust, that set me on a personal quest for understanding, so somehow the news footage didn’t make the same separate impression on my life. (I was proud to hear Coretta Scott King speak twice: on 11/27/1965 at the then largest anti-Vietnam War March on Washington, D.C., sponsored by The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) to show not just SDS-ers were against the war, along with my dad, who was an active member, and in 1969 at Montclair (N.J.) High School.) The civil rights movement songs missing from the film were my camp songs. The appellation “priest” is not only confusing applied to the religious people called to join the second march when it’s married with children Unitarian minister James Reeb who was killed, but with only brief glimpses of a couple of men in the second and/or third row wearing yarmulkes, the iconic image of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linking arms with Rev. King is unfortunately omitted and will be forgotten for the younger generation who prefer to watch history in color.) (1/12/2015)
Last Days In Vietnam (9/1/2014)
A Master Builder (7/24/2014)
Closed Curtain (Pardé) and Manuscripts Don't Burn (Dast-neveshtehaa nemisoosand) (7/9/2014)
Burning Bush (Hořicí Keř) (previewed at 2013 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Holland interview at Director Talk.) (6/15/2014)
God Loves Uganda and Mission Congo (previewed at 2013 DOC NYC Festival) (5/28/2014)
Manakamana (previewed at 2013 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (4/18/2014)
The Missing Picture (L'image manquante)) (Note: The version I saw at the 2013 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center had a dispassionately read English narration by Jean-Baptiste Phou, where the director explained why he could finally make the film: “"I'm 50. It’s the first time I can say ‘I’” to individuate out of the masses.) (3/31/2014)
The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (briefly reviewed in Witches & War at 2014 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (Note: I was astonished that none of my colleagues at press screenings had heard of this legend! I looked forward to each monthly installment in Jack and Jill Magazine, though I wasn’t able to find a good book collection of the folk tales about her for my sons. At least now there’s some editions to scare my grandchildren. Interspersed between the animated chapters are poetic, Polish-narrated travels through Eastern European towns and fields, markets and herds, orchards and buildings, churches and cemeteries, some burned-out, some overgrown, some sparse, some lively.) (3/31/2014)
Kids for Cash (2/28/2014)
The Last Of The Unjust (Le Dernier Des Injustes) (previewed at 2013 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Director Talk interview is a useful supplement.) (2/7/2014)
Good Garbage (previewed at 2013 Other Israel Film Festival) (12/7/2013)
The Fading Valley (previewed at 2013 Other Israel Film Festival) (12/7/2013)
Green Dreams (previewed at 2013 Other Israel Film Festival) (12/7/2013)
It’s Better to Jump (previewed at 2013 Other Israel Film Festival) (12/7/2013)
You Will Be My Son (Tu Seras Mon Fils) (8/18/2013)
Blackfish (Note: The documentation of the maulings by orcas at marine shows made much more realistic the awful accident portrayed in Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os), briefly reviewed in best of year- scroll down) (7/26/2013)
The Undocumented (briefly reviewed at 2013 Death & Politics at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/23/2013)
The Act Of Killing (previewed at 2013 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (briefly reviewed at 2013 Death & Politics at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/23/2013)
Camp 14 – Total Control Zone (briefly reviewed at 2013 Death & Politics at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/23/2013)
My Afghanistan – Life In The Forbidden Zone (Mit Afghanistan: Livet i den forbudte zone) (briefly reviewed at 2013 Islam & Women’s Rights at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/22/2013)
Born This Way (briefly reviewed at 2013 Faith & Filmmaking at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/12/2013)
The New Black (briefly reviewed at 2013 Faith & Filmmaking at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/12/2013)
Deepsouth (briefly reviewed at 2013 Economics & the 24th Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/10/2013)
Fatal Assistance ((Assistance mortelle) (briefly reviewed at 2013 Economics & the 24th Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/10/2013)
Aasinki: The Story Of Arctic Cowboys (briefly reviewed in Shout Out for Quiet Documentaries at Tribeca ‘13 at Tribeca Film Festival) (kudos to the interactive scenery) (6/6/2013/addition 1/25/2014)
The Trials Of Muhammed Ali (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (Notes: Though the introductory context by the last surviving member of the Louisville Sponsoring Group, the hometown businessmen who bankrolled and managed his early career, is a first but would be apropos to a sports documentary, that establishes Clay’s amicable dealings with white folks who treated him fairly. So it’s that much more interesting that misinformed television critics are already negative about HBO’s fictionalized version Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight as having too many whites.) (6/4/2013)
BIG JOY: The Adventures of James Broughton (briefly reviewed in LGBT Cinema at Tribeca ‘13 at Tribeca Film Festival) (5/29/2013)
Cape Spin! An American Power Struggle (5/16/2013)
Raw Herring (Hollandse Nieuwe) (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/4/2013)
Oxyana (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/4/2013)
Let The Fire Burn (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/4/2013)
The Color Of The Chameleon (Tsvetat na hameleona) (briefly reviewed at 2013 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (Notes: The fabulist spy network he creates is actually a lot like the elaborate fictions spun to the Germans in World War II by the film mad double agent profiled in the documentary Garbo The Spy. How the informer system was embedded into everyday Bulgarian life is well-shown in the bio-doc Tzvetanka I saw at MoMA’s 2013 Documentary Fortnight. Scripter Vladislav Todorov also adapted his Zift into a much more violent “Socialist noir” than this film.) (3/25/2013)
The Battle Of Pussy Willow Creek (Notes: The faux name of the cinematographer is “Jean Culdesac”, and the ex-slave’s Jules Verne crossed with Rube Goldberg designs, including escaping via his re-jiggered “Aerial Planter” balloon and then developing weapons like “the Dope Bomb”, are meticulously drawn by the director’s engineer boyfriend. My long-time participation in a real American History Reading Group is how I know just how funny this is!) (2/25/2013)
West Of Memphis (1/25/2013)
The Pirogue (1/23/2013)
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God (Notes: With beautiful religious music continually heard on the soundtrack, Gibney also interviews frustrated activists who are going after the Vatican City’s legitimacy as an internationally recognized nation-state, as first demarcated by Mussolini, because the church uses diplomatic immunity when it’s convenient to avoid legal action on the abuse cases. PBS’s Frontline has shown two notable reports: Joe Cultrera’s first-person account in Hand of God from the notorious Boston archdiocese and priest abuse of Native Americans in Alaska in The Silence. (11/24/2012)
Chasing Ice (11/9/2012)
Leviathan (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/14/2012)
Last Ride (7/6/2012)
Call Me Kuchu (briefly reviewed at 2012 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/16/2012) (See with God Loves Uganda for background.)
Silenced Voices (briefly reviewed at 2012 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/16/2012)
Special Flight (Vol spécial) (briefly reviewed at 2012 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/16/2012)
Five Broken Cameras (previewed at 2012 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (Notes: For the son’s third birthday, his mother teaches him that lemons ameliorate the effects of tear gas after a children’s demonstration is disrupted by soldiers in riot gear. The trip to Tel Aviv is for his father to get continuing expensive medical treatment after his crash. (5/30/2012) Ralph Seliger’s interview with the director notes he wrote the script for his collaborator Emad Burnat. Judy Gelman Myers’s interview provides additional background on the creative process.
Julia Bacha’s short film My Neighbourhood, that I previewed at the Tribeca Film Festival, covers other nonviolent anti-wall protests through a young Palestinian boy’s eyes.
This documentary figures in a funny plot point of the “Signals” episode, in the 2nd season, of Veep, teleplay by Simon Blackwell, story by Armando Iannucci and Blackwell, where she has to negotiate with her college student daughter to make her apologize for a favorable review that criticizes the Israeli occupation.
High Tech, Low Life (briefly reviewed in Award-Winning Docs at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: The older video blogger, at least for the first few years, hid his criticisms through his cat.) (5/9/2012)
Generation P (briefly reviewed at 2012 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/23/2012)
Good Times, Wonderful Times (1964, restored) along with Man’s Peril: The Making of Good Times, Wonderful Times (on Milestone’s DVD release of On The Bowery) (3/12/2012) (Note: It’s like time machine traveling to the real Mad Men.)
This Is Not A Film (In film nist) (Notes: In the spirit of the film’s theme of anti-editorial interference, here’s my original sentences: “When a genial young man comes to take out the garbage, recognizes the director and is flattered by his attention, Panahi impulsively and irresistibly does something simple, dangerous, and forbidden –he picks up the camera and follows him into the elevator. As the rubbish collector is drawn out about his ostensibly non-political problems--his hopes, his family, and the neighbors-- that obnoxious dog and owner reappear to nag in the background, and the details of daily life outside the apartment take on a heightened significance.” (previewed at 2011 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (3/2/2012)
The Pruitt Igoe Myth: An Urban History (My additional notes.) (1/20/2012)
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (previewed at 2011New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/16/2011)
Tahrir: Liberation Square (briefly reviewed at 2011 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/11/2011)
Patience (After Sebald) (briefly reviewed at 2011 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/11/2011)
The Tiniest Place (El Lugar Mas Pequeño) (seen at 2011 DocuWeeks) (9/11/2011)
Impunity (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, dedicated in memory to my activist dad) (Notes: testimony requires a complex courtroom choreography between perpetrators and victims' families, especially when pointed questions are raised about who ordered how many killed when and where in what mass graves. No, writer Kathy Reichs, the model for TV's Bones, is not one of the forensic anthropologists seen at work here.) (6/20/2011)
The Siege (La Toma) (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center, dedicated in memory of my activist dad) (6/20/2011)
Granito: How To Nail A Dictator (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center, dedicated in memory of my activist dad) (6/20/2011)
12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center, dedicated in memory to my activist dad) (6/20/2011)
This Is My Land… Hebron (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center, dedicated in memory to my activist dad) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (6/20/2011)
City Of Life And Death (Nanjing! Nanjing!) (5/13/2011)
Our School (Scoala Noastra) (briefly reviewed in Final Roundup of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/13/2011)
Give Up Tomorrow (briefly reviewed at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/22/2011)
Korkoro (Liberté) (Notes: The portrayals of "Les Juste" are based on the actions of a real, surviving school teacher in the Resistance and a notary who tried to subvert French laws against Romas' lifestyle. Director Gatlif recruited Albanian, Kosovar, Romanian, Russian and Serbian actors, and one of the brothers leading the troupe is played by the Georgian Georges Babluani, who starred in his brother's 13 Tzameti (2005). Much more appropriately than Roberto Benigni's clowning in Life Is Beautiful (Vita è bella), Thiérrée tries to set himself free by climbing trees, even as he finds on the train tracks a watch with Hebrew numbers that signals the fate he and his family cruelly face at the end of the film. While the remembrances of survivors who were a child and a portraitist in Auschwitz in Hilary Helstein's As Seen Through These Eyes (2008) are among the few witnesses of the "Gypsy Holocaust", various activist groups now label it in different languages, including porajmos and Samudaripen. How they are still persecuted today can be glimpsed in Eugene Hütz's tour of destitute walled settlements in Pavla Fleischer's The Pied Piper Of Hützovina.) (3/25/2011)
Curling (briefly reviewed at 2011 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/25/2011)
Even The Rain (También La Lluvia) (previewed at 2010 Spanish Cinema Now of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (2/19/2011)
Shoah addenda: Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 p.m. and The Karski Report, with revival of Claude Lanzmann in Our Nazi (briefly reviewed in 2011 Film Comments Selects of Film Society of Lincoln Center (2/18/2011)
The Way Back (1/21/2011) (Note: As the girl draws out hallucinatory flashbacks about the men, and individuates them for us, their personalities, mutual support and different language skills are complementary, though most of the film is in English accented by the characters' native tongues. The bit heavy-handed politics is also visualized when they see the ancient Silk Road into Mongolia and China surmounted by a hammer and sickle – "So it's here too"-- and they have to decide where to proceed. The desert scenes go on so painfully that I shamefully felt like the thirsty theater audience in the 1957 Ealing comedy The Smallest Show on Earth. While the guards sneering "Siberia is your prison", more background on Stalin and his gulag society is also shown in Marleen Gorris's Within the Whirlwind, based on the memoirs of Eugenia Ginzburg.)
The Time That Remains (1/10/2011)
Rabbit à la Berlin (Królik po berlinsku), where the rabbits are like Chris Marker's cats (previewed at MoMA’s 2010 Academy-Nominated Documentary Shorts) with Loss (Vaters Land), where the train imagery is stronger than what the intellectuals say.) (12/8/2010)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Mistérios de Lisboa) (briefly reviewed at 2010 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (11/8/2010)
Budrus (10/10/2010) (also briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (5/7/2010)
Nuremberg (previewed at 2010 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Note: The 1948 documentary also emphasized the defendants' right to have lawyers present their cases, even as they nervously turned on each other for responsibility after this first full revelation of Nazi actions. The far less public trials of Nazis in Eastern Europe were far more about summary judgment.) (9/29/2010)
Pale Flower (Kawaita hana) and Silence (Chinmoku) as part of Elegant Elegies: The Films of Masahiro Shinoda, along with Fernando de Fuentes’ Mexican Revolution Trilogy: Prisoner 13 (El prisionero trece), My Buddy Mendoza (El Compadre Mendoza) and Let’s Go with Pancho Villa (Vamanos con Pancho Villa) (briefly reviewed at 2010 New York Film Festival Masterworks of the Film Society of Lincoln Center (9/24/2010)
Red Alert: The War Within (7/9/2010)
War Don Don (The War Is Over) (briefly reviewed at 2010 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival) (See with other films about these courts vs. genocide that screened at last year's Festival.) (6/15/2010)
Moloch Tropical (briefly reviewed at 2010 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival) (seen at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: The title is a comparison to Alexander Sokurov's Moloch about Hitler in his bunker, and there are references to Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. The fortress is Citadelle Laferrière.) (6/15/2010)
John Rabe (5/21/2010) (fictionalization of Nanking)
Babies (Bébés) (5/7/2010) (Note: While the documentary's release in time for Mother's Day has been jumped on by eager commercial product sponsors, the producers are also commissioning minute-long shorts by indie filmmakers who are new parents. The first directors featured include Caveh Zahedi (I Am a Sex Addict), Jennifer Reeves (The Time We Killed), and Sascha Paladino (Throw Down Your Heart). But they are far more proud parents than Balmès' dispassionate observations.)
The Other City (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010) (Note: The cross-section also embodies single/parent, young/old, homeless/with family support, ex-prisoners/recovering addicts.)
Into the Cold (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010)
Have You Heard From Johannesburg (4/20/2010) (Note: In the Fair Play episode, the testimony of the activists from the U.K., Australia and New Zealand is particularly fascinating in seeing their gray-haired memories supported frame-by-frame with news coverage of the actions of their youthful selves).
The Greatest (4/2/2010)
Forgotten Transports: To Poland (Zapomenuté transporty: Do Poland): The Human Spirit (seen at 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (Note: This expands the historical understanding of just how extensively the Nazis confidently used that country as a locus to conduct atrocities. In completing his Forgotten Transports quartet of documentaries extensively researched over ten years, with his doggedly uncovered visual, archival and witness confirmations that meticulously confirm the fates of Czech Jews (his superb Forgotten Transports: To Estonia (Zapomenuté transporty: Do Estonska): Women's Friendship was shown, and I briefly reviewed at the 2009 Festival ), Lukás Pribyl uncovered additional camps and ghettoes in eastern Poland that were way stations for 14,000 Jews to the Final Solution. Fifty men survived and their first-time telling of miracles of luck, pluck and quick-wits are each worth a Hollywood film; at least one was made as Escape from Sobibor. (4/16/2010)
My Enemy’s Enemy (4/10/2010)
Waiting For Armageddon (1/8/2010) (Note: The CT computer geeks work on military jets -- evidently a belief in Christian end-of-world theology isn't considered as much a security threat as Islamists'.)
Sweetgrass (also brief preview review from 2009 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (1/5/2010)
Sweet Rush (Tatarak) (briefly reviewed at 2009 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/9/2009)
The Baader Meinhof Complex (Der Baader Meinhof Komplex) (emendations coming after 2/21/2009) (8/21/2009)
The Stoning Of Soraya M. (6/26/2009)
Defamation (Hashmatsa) (previewed at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) vs. Look Into My Eyes (seen at 20th Human Rights Watch International Film Festival ) in a comparative review (6/12/2009)
Which Way Home (briefly reviewed in Part 2: The Kids Are Alright at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/4/2009)
Garapa (briefly reviewed in Part 2: The Kids Are Alright at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/4/2009)
The Burning Season (briefly reviewed in Part 1 Recommendations at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/26/2009)
Birdwatchers (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)
The Milk of Sorrow (La teta asustada) (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)
Paper Soldier (Bumaznyj soldat) (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)
Paradise (reviewed at 2009 Film Comments Selects of Film Society of Lincoln Center (2/20/2009)
The Class (Entre les murs) (Notes: I commented on the IMDb message board that I thought that Sony Classics should have shelled out for English subtitles in American slang as the Brit slang is a bit confusing – starting a lengthy discussion as to whether "skank" was the best translation of the key French word "pétasse" (with others suggesting "bitchy" or "slut"). Here's just a sampling of the response: camprena posted the following paragraphs in response on 1/31/2009: "Actually, I'm the person who wrote the English subtitles for this film and I find your comments extremely interesting."
"The big problem with translating French films into English is that, as translators, we are often required to produce an 'international' version as the English-subtitled print of the film is the one that is used for sales to the rest of the world - be it to the rest of Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, etc. You won't believe the number of times that sales company's here have requested changes because the buyers won't understand certain terms. "
"Surely American slang would have been just as off-putting coming out of French teenagers' mouths? That would certainly be the case for all non-US viewers.
In an ideal world, there would be different sets of subtitles for each market. But it wouldn't be just two: English is not the same in the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, South Africa, etc. And yes, it would cost more as they would need to pay a different translator each time, strike new prints, pay the subtitling lab costs, etc. Usually what happens is that the distributor in the country concerned makes changes that they feel are required to suit the local vernacular. In the case of "Entre les murs", Sony Pictures Classics made no changes to the subtitles that I wrote, so they must have felt that there was no problem for the US market. "
". . .The word "skank" is more US slang than British. Very odd that you should find the subtitles were in British slang. I'm British and I found them more American than British. . .Concerning the use of 'skank', every dictionary that I consulted while working confirmed that it is definitely more US English than British English. Maybe it isn't used much in your part of the US. A British person would probably use the word "scrubber" or 'slapper' "
"'Bitch' as another commentator suggested would not have worked as the French original word 'pétasse', in the context of the film, is not as strong as 'bitch'. I won't go into all the reasons for the choice of 'skank' here but countless other solutions were tried and, with the producer and director, we all felt that 'skank' worked best."
Kirena added to the discussion: "Pétasse doesn't have the 'sex - whore' notion that bitch, slut or whore' have. It's more about being stupid, vulgar and interested by shallow things so i guess that skank works ok but without the sex undertone. Actually if the teacher had said 'salope' then you could translate by slut or whore. But 'pétasse' is really quite mild (not really foul language) nonetheless not nice unless you are friends. I read the subtitles tonight in London as i watched the movie and despite the obvious good work that was put into it, i noted several things that just didn't work in the subtitles.
I really think it's quite an impossible movie to translate. The only option would be to actually not translate all the dialogues but to explain the context or literally go around to explain what is meant. For instance about the conjugations, 'the disrespect references' (in english) when in french it's about 'tu' and 'vous', 'succulent'. The disrespect one is important because i don't see how anglo-saxons speakers could see that the student said anything inappropriate and disrespectful. His/her whole sentence, in terms of meaning, could be acceptable but said with 'tu' (i, YOU, she, we) instead of 'vous' (we, YOU, they). The translation doesn't convey that, which then can lead viewers to think that the teacher was being picky when considering some sentences as non proper." (updated 3/14/2009)
Waltz With Bashir (Valse im Bashir) (previewed at 2008 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (12/23/2008)
The Reader (12/10/2008) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)
Dust (Staub) (12/3/2008)
Ballast (previewed at 2008 New Directors/New Films at Lincoln Center/MoMA) (10/1/2008)
Trouble the Water (previewed at 2008 New Directors/New Films at Lincoln Center/MoMA) (Notes: This film made me really think through how much disaster-planning has a "blame the victim" bias, including all those years when border-line Holocaust-deniers would say to me "Why didn't they leave?" (including about the uncle I’m named for). Not to compare the Shoah to Katrina, though there's man-made elements in the latter, but this starkly shows us how human nature responds when faced with horrific catastrophe-- how ties that bind influence who leaves and who stays, and who recovers. This film definitely gives you "There but for fortune goes you or I" perspective. The title is a repeated line from the traditional gospel tune “Wade in the Water”, heard here in several versions, including by Dr. John and Mary Mary.) (8/22/2008)
The Exiles (7/13/2008)
The Children Of Huang Shi (5/23/2008)
Under The Same Moon (La Misma Luna) (3/21/2008)
Blind Mountain (Mang Shan) (Notes: Touchingly portrayed is how kidnapped wives are tied down by the babies they are forced to birth.) (3/12/2008)
Chicago 10 (David Dellinger and other emendations coming after 8/29/2008) (2/29/2008)
The Duchess Of Langeais (Ne Touchez Pas La Hache) (Notes: I spent the summer between college and graduate school commuting a long distance to a disastrous internship, and spent the train and bus rides reading Balzac's interconnected oeuvre La Comédie humaine, at least what I could find in paperback translations. I had to read this one in hardcover, so long ago that I imagined Sean Connery and Diana Rigg in the lead roles. Penguin came out with the paperback a year later, so it was easy for me to re-read it to do this review of the adaptation.) (2/22/2008)
The Wind That Shakes the Barley (scroll down for my capsule review)
Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and The Holocaust (12/28/2007)
Nanking (emendations coming after 6/12/2008) (12/12/2007)
Darfur Now (11/2/2007)
O Jerusalem (10/17/2007) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)
My Brother’s Wedding (9/14/2007)
The Devil Came On Horseback (7/25/2007) (emendations coming after 1/25/2008)
Manufactured Landscapes ( 6/20/2007) (emendations coming after 12/20/2007)
Pierrepoint – The Last Hangman (6/8/2007) (Spall’s performance is comparable to his excellent portrayal in another made-for-TV film Mr Harvey Lights a Candle
Adam’s Apples (Adams æbler) ( 3/16/2007) (emendations coming after 8/16/2007)
Beyond the Gates (3/9/2007) (emendations coming after 9/9/2007)
Amazing Grace (2/23/2007) (emendations coming after 8/23/2007)
Bamako (2/14/2007) (emendations coming after 8/14/2007)
The Italian (Italyanets) (1/19/2007)
The Tiger and the Snow (La Tigre e la neve) (12/29/2006)
Letters from Iwo Jima (12/20/2006) (emendations coming after 6/20/2007) (Notes: I saw Fires on the Plain (Nobi) afterwards and it’s an important influence.)
Home of the Brave (12/15/2006) (emendations coming after 6/15/2007)
So Much So Fast (12/10/2006) (emendations coming after 4/11/07)
Days of Glory (Indigènes) (12/8/2006) (emendations coming after 6/8/2007)
Deliver Us From Evil (11/3/2006)) and scroll down for my capsule review (Pair viewing with Hand of God)
The Bridge (10/25/2006)
The Clay Bird (Matir moina) (10/26/2006)
Jesus Camp (9/22/2006)
The Hidden Blade (Kakushi-ken: oni no tsume) is filmed in a deceptively old-fashioned and leisurely style to make pointed observations of Japanese society, much as Far From Heaven did for the U.S.
Director/co-writer Yôji Yamada again adapts Shuuhei Fujisawa stories as he did so beautifully in Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei). Taking place just a few years before Hollywood's The Last Samurai, this feels like a rebuke and response to that very Westernized interpretation of some of the same issues of how changes in military technology impacted feudalism and imperialism, as well as visually referencing many classic Japanese samurai films, but from a more individualized point of view then Kurosawa, Kobayashi or Inagaki. (You can catch up on the genre, as I did, on IFC's weekly morning and afternoon repeats on "Samurai Saturdays."
The first half of the film establishes the complicated domestic life and frustrating work of the struggling samurai (a solid and sympathetic Masatoshi Nagase, channeling Toshirô Mifune). The broadly comic scenes of fumbled rifles and cannon training recall similarities with the Sharpe TV series of the just a bit earlier Napoleonic wars. Particularly lovely are household hearth scenes of warmth between generations and between master and servants.
But this is not the idyllic village where Tom Cruise sojourned, as darker abuse is revealed and the samurai flaunts rigid social protocols to do right by those he cares for, especially the young maid "Kie" (Takako Matsu channeling the three little maids from The Mikado a bit too much). He is slow to reveal emotions or take action (the romance goes beyond Jane Austen in its cross-caste sidling and very slow resolution), suppressing vivid childhood memories we see very briefly in flashbacks in contrast to his voluble friend who rebels, including against traditional suicide.
The emphasis throughout the film is on generational conflict, as elders who are to be venerated are constantly shown to be fools or much worse -- old uncles complain about younger people (whose names they can't keep straight) using the new Western weapons, but place a higher priority on eating; a mother-in-law viciously mistreats her daughter-in-law to increase profits; a corrupt senior retainer (the feudal titles do not seem well-translated in the subtitles) lies and manipulates while enjoying geishas and complaining about his prostate problems. But a teacher derided as a "crazy old man" who can still best the young swordsman passes on more useful stealth techniques than the martinet drill sergeant who has inherited the honorific "sensei" with his British guns.
While as usual in such films, I simply cannot follow the Byzantine shogun politics even with a superfluous narration, as I've never studied Japanese political history, the second half ironically builds on the iconography of the genre with unusual sights and sounds. Macho conflicts are filmed voyeuristically, with sidling camera angles that indicate a passing from mano a mano duels to the anonymity of modern weapons, and thus justifying the use of the titular vengeance.
The exquisite cinematography and sound design create a special environment. With a look of faded epic cinematography like the passing of an age, we see snow falling on parasols, cherry blossoms on the path and rain fall on unrequited love. We hear them too, as the breezes, wind, crickets, birds, rain and the household sounds of tools and crackling fire punctuate long silences and dominate more than the conventionally soaring score that is used judiciously. But a prison and eventual bloody fights in a heavily symbolic fog are not minimalized.
The production design is much more elaborate in showing us traditional architecture than most such Japanese films.
I'm sure some of the social and historical commentary just goes by a Western audience unfamiliar with particulars, but the themes of individuals caught up in social proscriptions who rebel and seek love, respect, peace and, most of all, control over their lives is universal and very involving.
Set in stunning scenery on the titular Tibetan plateau, Mountain Patrol: Kekexili recreates an extraordinary grassroots effort in the 1990's by supremely dedicated idealists to stop poaching of the Tibetan antelope -- mano to mano with no satellite phones or navigation equipment or much in the way of weapons.
For all the thrilling nobility of the volunteers and grueling challenges they face from man and nature, the film naggingly feels like a propaganda effort supported by the Chinese government to show how it supports Tibetan initiatives (including a somewhat smug statement at the end that they have now taken over the protection job from the volunteers). I felt complicit in the occupation as I got caught up in the film.
Their struggle to save the antelope vividly recalls scenes of how the buffalo was decimated in Dances With Wolves, though we get no inkling of the role of the antelopes in Tibetan culture, so saving them just seems either altruism about a rare animal, nationalism, obsession, stubbornness or macho independence.
While we meet several of the volunteers in their isolated monitoring stations and frustrating chases who have a range of personalities and relationships, it is a bit hard to differentiate them other than by the vehicles they are driving or jewelry they're wearing. The exceptions are the patrol's charismatic leader Ri Tai (Duobuji captures the screen) and our entrée to this world, a Beijing-based investigative journalist with Tibetan roots (Ga Ju played by Zhang Lei who effectively communicates his transformation by his experiences).
While the sense of swaggering male camaraderie is well captured in a military-like bonding of living, traveling and partying hard, they say the area's name translates to "land of beautiful women" and that's supported by the few we see during brief respites.
In addition to the breathtaking scenes of the Tibetan plateau, better seen on the wide screen than on TV, in a range of extremely challenging weather and geographic elements (one scene in quick sand is particularly harrowing), the views of Tibetan towns and quotidian life in the mountains are an intriguing sidelight.
The subtitles were only hard to read as white on white a few times, though a couple of times they lingered on the screen too long past a dialog, blocking views. (5/29/2006)
C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is an effective satire of History Channel-type documentaries.
To illustrate an alternative reality of the past hundred years as if the Confederacy had won the U.S. Civil War (with foreign help) through a faux British TV documentary, writer/director Kevin Willmott makes excellent use of detailed research and archival footage to seamlessly create dead-on parodies of decades of movie styles (D.W. Griffith here makes The Yankee instead of The Clansman, to a 1930's style hagiographic bio pic of Jefferson Davis, to a World War II-style movie here set in a war to take over South America as the Confederates dreamed to do, etc.).
Particularly chilling throughout this supposed televised presentation are the "commercials" of racist products and horrifically cheerful slave controls, where ads for reruns of the old sit com Beulah fit in comfortably (the syndicator may now pull this one just as CBS keeps Amos and Andy in the vault as she sure does look like a mammy). The footnote coda chillingly demonstrates that representations making use of the most exaggerated stereotypes were not fictional but were actual racist artifacts or activities, though producer Spike Lee also used them in his parallel Bamboozled of a satirical TV minstrel show taken at face value. (A recent episode of Nip/Tuck also had a pleasant extremist mom have an Aunt Jemima collection.)
Some of the historical imaginings are creatively scabrous, such as exporting slaves to get the U.S. out of the Depression, and raises intriguing issues of slavery in an industrial economy. The film is particularly nasty about "traditional values" and Christian hypocrisy. While there are many Daily Show-type jokes, there is plenty that can't be laughed at.
The script's imagination falls flat and finally trails off as it imagines how a CSA would fare in world affairs, spreading its racist gospel to the Japanese and the Africans, less thought out than Philip Roth's take on allying with the Nazis and what the U.S. actually did to Japanese-Americans was worse than described here. But it's not always clear what this CSA's foreign policy would have been, other than "Red Canada" where the talking head black scholars can lash out from the safety of Montreal.
A story-telling mechanism of the film that falters into personalities as it heads into the 1970's is focusing on a fictional first family of the Confederacy who is meant to be the Adamses or Kennedys in public service, with plenty of borrowings from the life of Dixecrat Senator Strom Thurmond.
Until it fades off, this is a very sophisticated and imaginative satire.
The Fallen at first seems like an old-fashioned World War II movie, opening with almost Hogan's Heroes-like humor with "Milo Minderbinder" of Catch-22 like wheeling-dealing, but gradually develops into a moving and complex portrait of soldiers.
Most English-language films we have seen about GI's interacting with locals have been in French forests, but this is set in the more complex social, political and military environment of northern Italy at the close of the war, dealt with superficially in Captain Corelli's Mandolin and almost contemporaneously in Roberto Rossellini's Paisà, which was also a series of vignettes.
The very large ensemble that gets hard to differentiate individually includes Americans closing in on the Germans who are equally allies and occupiers to Italians buffeted by deposed fascists, Communist partisans, displaced peasants and apolitical criminals, an unusually diverse array of characters who all claim to be nationalists.
Like a Bill Maudlin cartoon, this is war from the GI's eye view; we don't see generals or hear discussions of strategy or tactics, just orders to follow. The American soldiers, as drawn by the script of Nick Day and Caio Ribeiro, are the most stereotyped from old movies, the hulking hillbilly, the Italian guy from Brooklyn who is delegated to do translations and community relations as the locals eagerly ask if he knows their cousins, the alcoholic officer in charge, etc. In the second half of the film, the Americans' portrayal sharpens up as the supply guys in the quartermaster corps are thrust into the front lines for the first time and there's less dialog and more taut action.
The German soldiers are the least stereotyped, despite many close-ups on their black crosses and Heil Hitler salutes. They are shown as professional, competent soldiers doing their job far from home in a crumbling situation, with limited supplies and manpower. Though sounding more like World War I trench movies (and characters on all sides recall relatives who were inspiring veterans), their discussions of the futility of continuing to fight are plausible and add complications to their actions.
The Italians are a mix of stereotypes and complexities. The sex-starved peasant women are just plain silly, and the Army, regardless of accurate issues of unpreparedness, looks like buffoons. The Mafiosi-like thug and his henchmen are the usual, but their interactions with the armies are interesting, even if it is never explained how they've avoided the war up to now. The refugees are both as haunted and resilient as "Mother Courage".
While far less bloody than Saving Private Ryan, it is unpredictable what will happen to characters we get to care about and is unsparing in showing the personal devastation of war. Debut feature director Ari Taub does the fight scenes very up close and personal, and very effectively portrays a real sense of actual combat, particularly for a low-budget film.
The developing serious tone is undone many times by the melodramatic score which overemphasizes comedic elements of the absurdity of war. Period songs by interesting voices are used effectively throughout.
With each nationality speaking in their native tongues, the subtitles are black-lined and always legible. The subtitles are also thoughtfully provided even when characters are speaking English but with thick accents. Language communication issues are a key part of this story.(3/23/2006)
Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo) is a heavy-handed symbolic linking of class colonialism with sexual obsession and violence.
We get a lot of nationalistic symbolism as the central "Marcos", bodyguard to the General, spends a lot of time supervising the raising and the lowering of the Mexican flag (and I assume the various double entendres of up and down the flagpole and a lot more phallic images penetrating vulva stands-in).
We see sudden bloody violence spurred by sexual and other frustrations or just that writer/director Carlos Reygadas has seen a lot of Asian Extreme cinema with similar themes.
We get a lot of controlling religious symbolism, culminating in a self-flagellating pilgrimage. Cynicism about celebrity and soccer players is thrown into the mix as well.
Compared to Bubble, the use of nonprofessional actors here seems like an exploitation of their faces and especially of their bodies, with very long close-ups of every part of them in unsympathetic poses, as the camera is almost as documentary-like static as in the work of Michael Haneke. Filled with tawdry, explicit male fantasies that could be construed as misogynistic, it wasn't a coincidence that I was the only woman in the theater, let alone that most of the older men were wearing long raincoats (though two did walk out half way through as even they could figure out it was much more political than erotic).
Other than as symbols, none of the characters make much sense as human beings, with the possible exception of Marcos's wife, who I felt somewhat kindly towards about her involvement in a bizarre kidnapping. The General's daughter's, "Ana"s somewhat older boyfriend "Jaime" was at least cute, but her sexual appetites seemed a lot more fantasy than even realistic as a criticism of the teasing of the pampered upper class leeches.
The sound design is intriguing, as sounds from a radio, a tractor, a religious procession and service all seem to set Marcos off in his existential acts.
Commendably, the subtitles were black-outlined for legibility, so one could focus on reading those instead of looking at boring full frontal nudity.
Sophie Scholl - The Final Days (Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage) feels more like a docu-drama recreation from the History Channel than a film.
There are a few scenes that rise above the meticulous use of newly uncovered documents, which are extensively listed in the credits, to find the people behind the words and situations, and those scenes are quite involving.
Perhaps writer Fred Breinersdorfer and director Marc Rothemund just assume viewers have already seen Michael Verhoeven's 1982 film The White Rose (Die Weiße Rose), which I haven't, as little background is provided before we are thrust into the students' clandestine newsletter production. It even took me awhile to figure out that Julia Jentsch and Fabian Hinrichs were playing siblings not romantic partners.
By the time of their furtive distribution at their college campus I was hooked, mostly through the suspenseful directing, including the excellent use of the same building in Munich where the original protest took place, up and up then down stairs under a dizzying classical dome. How fortuitous circumstances get them caught is very tense, even though you know what will happen.
The exact details of their capture is a profound lesson in how a totalitarian state operates through the scary cooperation (some would say co-optation) of its citizens. Individuals versus a totalitarian state is much more emphasized throughout the film than against Naziism specifically.
As a German film that seems more aimed at a domestic audience than an international one, interesting emphases are made about the protesters that I have not seen made clear in other films that included any resistance. The students articulate first and most vociferously that they are anti Hitler's "Total War", particularly after the disaster at Stalingrad, which these medical students witnessed due to compulsory medic service, more than any other aspect of Nazi policies. Their youthful anti-war remonstrances do sound universal - and would be treasonous to any imperialist warmonging government. But they also tell of eyewitness accounts of SS brutalities from the front, as well as Jewish neighbors' disappearances, that intriguingly belie the usual "we didn't know" excuses of the traditional "good German."
The film also emphasizes their strong Protestant religious beliefs in contrast to the Nazis, and I was surprised there was a chaplain in their prison. I had thought the parallel Communist cell-mate was a stiff contrivance to emphasize for the former East German audience how the Communists were an anti-Nazi force, but evidently the character was based on a real person whose remembrances were used for the film.
The core of the film and the most fascinating is Sophie's series of interrogations by Robert Mohr (a terrific Gerald Alexander Held in a subtly complex performance). Not only is this based on recently recovered transcripts, but also on interviews with Mohr's relatives that uncovered the person behind the functionary. This could have been a scene we've seen many times in either World War II or sci fi or other representations of fictional totalitarian enforcers, let alone many cop shows.
Mohr at first is as much a detective effectively building a case through the accumulation of evidence and eventually confession as in fictional cops played by Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer or Andre Braugher in Homicide. It is only as he keeps up the interrogation that you see him sense that this is no longer just a job that he's had for many years but that the system he has succeeded in as a good bureaucrat has changed in a profound way. He becomes a paternal human being.
At first Sophie just seems like the bravura very young woman she is, caught in foolish lies that are no match for CSI like forensics (though it is a bit confusing that we don't see any of her brother's interrogation) as she desperately tries to avoid incriminating anyone else. Then Jentsch's performance rises to an extraordinary level and she seems to be channeling the past and the future, as if she's vocalizing that single protester in front of the tanks at Tian'anmen Square in 1989 as much as a February day in 1943. Jentsch was wonderful in The Edukators (Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei) but here she grows
into a stirring adult in what could have been a very static situation.
The show trial, in the same hall of "justice," is such a farce that it is hard to believe it is accurately portrayed, even as based on transcripts and that it was intended for theatrical propaganda purposes. André Hennicke plays the judge, Richter Dr. Roland Freisler, like a broad martinet, but his oratorical style isn't that different from Joseph Goebbels' that we've seen in newsreels, so maybe it is an accurate representation. The passionate speeches that each defendant delivers covers a different aspect of the sources of their protest that is quite revealing about the reasons behind the resistance. Their articulateness keeps these scenes from just being melodramatic.
The English subtitles are commendably large, but are irritatingly white on white such that us unilinguals have to infer the final verdict because we certainly can't read it.
It is virtually impossible not to tear up at the original, happy photographs of Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst that are shown with the closing credits.
This is not about violence as a control agent despite the horrific enactment of the verdict, but about the essence of a police state and how free thinking challenges its basic tenets. While we do hear more about National Socialist Party theory than in most films about the era, including Downfall (Der Untergang), the film demonstrates that governments rule more by hearts and minds than politics and therefore has intentional resonance to today's war against terrorism that sacrifices other human rights.
About half of Why We Fight covers very similar ground, even with a comparable personalizing techniques, as Fahrenheit 9/11. Writer/director Eugene Jarecki's unique contribution is taking the long-term view of American military policy. Unfortunately, his clarion points tend to get lost amidst the obvious agit-prop, where capitalism is presented as the antithesis of democracy.
The most powerful elements of the film are the prescient speech and analysis of the point of view of President/General Eisenhower. As one interviewee notes, we are all familiar with his coining of the term "the military-industrial complex" but had not seen more of the speech nor how he followed that up with additional warnings. This film also puts his views in biographical context, through interviews with family and historians, that emphasize how his military experience colored his policy views (an indirect cut at the non-veteran Bushies and neo-cons). Other historical elements are presented with little complexity, such as Truman's reasoning behind dropping the bombs. I would have liked to have seen more excerpts from the Frank Capra and Walt Disney World War II propaganda films, but those have probably been included in other documentaries over the years.
Jarecki well integrates international television footage of the war in Iraq that U.S. audiences have not seen before, particularly of civilian casualties. While the footage is presented completely uncritically, it does very effectively contradict the Bushies and the military. However, many of the criticisms of the excuses and bravado for the war have been already widely aired, and more adroitly presented, including nightly on The Daily Show. And Jarecki doesn't even include the fall of Colin Powell's credibility in his criticisms. There is only a frisson that the current mess is blowback from European colonialism in the region for centuries.
Another strong element of the film is showing how Congress has become integral to the effective functioning of this force like a third leg on a stool, with the giant contractors parsing out their work by Congressional district. The visits to their trade shows, though, come across like the gun shows Michael Moore visited in Bowling for Columbine, just with scarier fire power. The financial analysis of the industries involved is nowhere near the sophisticated level of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
Adding in the Beltway Think Tanks as some new element just comes across as naive - the Brookings Institution was for years considered the font of Democratic policy, and staffed the JFK and LBJ administrations, so now it's really just the neo-cons' turn after using their experience in the desert usefully. Jarecki, unfortunately, doesn't even explain the targeted funding by the conservative foundations such as the Scaifes that was crucial to this organized approach by providing operating support to general conservative outposts while the liberals frittered away their efforts through splintered project funding to dozens of specially focused groups. In general, right wingers are not given equal time with the liberals, as they are mostly represented by Irving Kristol.
Like Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11, Jarecki hones in on a grieving parent, here a retired cop/Viet Nam vet whose son was killed in the World Trade Center. There is a very similar angle on military recruitment, though we do get to understand one teen's decision more individually than Moore provided. It's just a cheap shot to have the running insertions of little kids and folks in All American mise en scenes answering the titular question.
Robert Miller's score is very effective, especially as it's used to under gird some of the interviews.
The film will be as effective viewed on TV/DVD/video as in a theater.(3/2/2006)
About three-quarters of Darwin's Nightmare is a damning study of the unintended consequences of messing with Mother Nature in the name of economic development.
It is a comprehensive examination of the natural and human ecosystem --fisherman and their families, processing factory workers and owners, corrupt officials, exporters, and the desperate men, women and children attracted to money -- around Lake Victoria, whose very name symbolizes the vestiges of colonialism as Tanzania becomes a pawn in the new global capitalism.
Dedicated documentarian Hubert Sauper does not take the easy fictional movie out of pointing a finger at a single company (like The Constant Gardener) or even a single industry (like Syriana), but looks at the whole system of exploitation and human failure.
It is a mostly fascinating look all around a boom town created by the extraction of a natural resource for export (that ironically was unnaturally introduced into the lake, the Nile perch). While it is refreshing that the European Union is the Great Satan here and not the United States for a change, Sauper implies this is a new or uniquely African situation rather than repeating the sins from centuries of mercantilism around the world since the 16th century, as the ghosts of native populations in the Americas and Asia would bear witness. (It was Benjamin Franklin's observations of the colonial populations that inspired Malthus who inspired Darwin.) He implies a recognition of how cultural imperialism is part of this economic change by including extended looks at the work of Christian missionaries. It is disheartening that by the 21st century, though, we still have not learned how to prevent or fix such calamities.
Sauper is at his strongest when he sticks to what is unique here. He is weakest at his most visually manipulative, lingering the camera on the maimed, dead and dying as, to be brutally frank, the same shots could be made of other African disasters such as famine and AIDS, though those are complicating factors here as well. In terms of employed people who do benefit from the cash crop, we hear more from the well-fed company owners and contractors, than the workers.
He is unusually sympathetic to the prostitutes he interviews and really finds their humanity, which I have otherwise only seen in Nahid Persson's documentary about Iran Prostitution Behind the Veil.
He is otherwise unfair to many of his informants by not bringing along a translator so they are forced to try to communicate in broken English, which of course makes them sound overly simplistic. This is particularly true for the mercenary pilots from former U.S.S.R. countries (invariably identified as Russian even if they are from the Ukraine etc.) who dangerously carry overloaded planefuls of processed fish from the primitive local airport to Europe as he relentlessly hones in with them on where those supposedly empty planes are really coming from and what they are carrying in, pushing them to reveal gun trading machinations like in Lord of War.
While he resists including any ironic health promotions on why fish consumption is going up in the E.U., he effectively moves his perspective wider as he reports on the famine in other parts of the country while the fish planes stream out. But, surprisingly, one of the weakest interviews is with a local print journalist who evidently first uncovered the links but who goes on a long screed against non-governmental agencies as war and food profiteers. It is also a weak technique to have an ex-school teacher (who for an unexplained reason appears now living in a shantytown) read aloud from newspaper articles and we're supposed to believe unprompted goes on about survival of the fittest. Clips from other organization's films are used effectively for background information.
The subtitles are excellent, not just that they are black-lined which could be a model for low-budget foreign-language films, but are visible even when people are speaking English, as between the accents and sound quality it would be difficult to understand them. However, the film will be just as effective on TV/DVD/video as it comes across like a television news special.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada personifies border issues between Texas and Mexico through the iconography of the obsessed man in the West genre, such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Lone Star, and Tommy Lee Jones' own performance in Lonesome Dove. The director/star brings his own powerful movie images with him as much as Clint Eastwood does, including from The Fugitive and his craggy face is flintily expressive. We absolutely believe that "Pete Perkins" would undertake a monomaniacal, possibly crazy, odyssey for his own frontier justice.
The stark environs are as commanding as the very strong actors, with each set off in sun-blinded cinematography by Chris Menges. Small town life in Texas is portrayed as evocatively as in Last Picture Show, but those teens have grown up into bored and lonely adults with secrets (a maturely vamping waitress Melissa Leo and a bit too foolish sheriff Dwight Yoakam) and the assumption that things will never change. "We were popular in high school" pouts the surprisingly good January Jones about her now border patrol officer husband (a bit stereotypical square-jawed bully Barry Pepper who is only given some humanity towards the end).
It takes a few scenes to adjust to the time-cutting back and forth. But it's far less than in scripter Guillermo Arriaga's 21 Grams or Amores Perros, and the shifts are clearly related to explaining characters' point-of-view, showing us what prejudices, miscommunications and misunderstandings brought each character to a confrontation and shattered lives. While there are almost as many coincidences of people crossing paths as in Crash, they are used to illustrate how differently each character is perceived on the other side of the Rio Grande, where one becomes "the Mexican" in the U.S. and the other "the gringo" in Mexico, though, as has been satirized in several other movies, everyone seems to watch the same telenovella soap opera.
Framed by titles setting each burial as a chapter heading, this is mostly a road movie brimming with ironies and colorful personalities, including Levon Helm as a blind guy who seems as dangerously trusting as the girl in the Frankenstein classic. Left unresolved is if, as one character says, each is "beyond redemption," if that's what Jones's screen-dominating character is seeking.
There are bizarre images and quick scenes of graphic violence.
The music selections are marvelously representative of the border culture, from country Merle Haggard to Hank Williams, Jr., Tex Mex Augie Meyers, to the bi-lingual Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez.
This and Brokeback Mountain are vividly demonstrating that cowboy movies can still resonate with new insights and passion. (2/23/2006)
From: Tommy Lee Jones Is Not Acting by Skip Hollandsworth, Texas Monthly, February 2006
But he did tell me that the year that Men in Black was released, he learned that a boy named Ezequiel Hernandez Jr., who lived not far from a ranch Jones owned in far West Texas, near the Texas-Mexico border, had been shot to death by a camouflaged Marine who had been sent to that part of the state to look for drug smugglers (see “Soldiers of Misfortune,” August 1997). It was said to be the first killing of an American citizen on American soil by a U.S. soldier since the shootings at Kent State University, in 1970. The Marine claimed he had shot the boy in self-defense, and he was not prosecuted. “Anyone knows that if the kid had been killed in Dallas and his name was Bobby Johnson and his skin was white, it would have been a different story,” Jones said.
For the first time, there wasn’t the usual tone of disgust in his voice at having to answer humdrum questions from a reporter, but a genuine anger. “I decided it was time to make a movie about a part of the world that many people haven’t experienced or don’t understand,” he said. “I wanted to give people a glimpse of a world that has its own character, its own quality, its own struggles and disappointments, its own harshness, as well as its own beauty. I wanted to portray the social and cultural contrasts between the land that’s south of the Rio Grande River and the land that’s north of it, and in the process, I wanted to show how things are different on each side of the river and how they are surprisingly the same.”
He paused. “I wanted to make a movie about my home country,” he said, “my home people.”
Fateless (Sorstalanság) has to answer the question: Why make yet another non-documentary film about the Holocaust? While of course every victim and survivor had an individually horrific experience and are essential witnesses, for film viewers, what unique viewpoint or story is there to watch that we haven't seen through tears before?
It takes quite a while for the viewer to understand that the point of Nobel-prize winning Imre Kertész's adaptation of his debut, semi-autobiographical novel is to tell the specific story of Hungarian Jews, as zero context is provided for the opening, anecdotal scenes, no dates, no background information on where in World War II we are starting from and not even how much time is passing in the first third of the film as the Nazis' net tightens on Budapest's Jews.
Perhaps director Lajos Koltai's goal in not providing the kind of context that was carefully established on films where he was the cinematographer, Sunshine and Max, was to help us understand the bewilderment of the diverse Jewish community-- observant and secular, capitalists and workers, young and old, and the randomness of what happened to them. Families coalesce in confusion as they are buffeted by scraps of information, changing government directives, amidst anti-Semitism and collaboration by their fellow Hungarians. We're also supposed to believe, however, that amidst these confusions the young teen protagonist (the very expressive Marcell Nagy) has extensive philosophical discussions with his play mates, and the girl next door who he of course has a crush on, about Jewish identity. Without that intellectualizing, his experiences are eerily identical, including its arbitrariness, to the boy's we already saw half a world away in another adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel's war time round up and imprisonment in one of Spielberg's other World War II films Empire of the Sun.
The next third of the film is gruesome experiences in concentration camps as we have seen before, even though these are extremely effectively re-enacted as the huge cast of actors and extras desiccate before our eyes. The production design in recreating the bare shelter and their work detail is the most realistic I've seen in a fiction film, as compared to documentaries and as described to me by a cousin who was the sole Holocaust survivor in our family (I'm named for her father who died in Auschwitz).
Halfway through these horrors, the theme of the film as to the uniqueness of the Hungarian experience starts to come through more than the usual Nazi sadism. Survival is linked to mutual dependence, camaraderie and bonding that comes from their national identification, even more than their shared religion (we see a few inmates nobly strive to maintain Jewish rituals). Individual personalities vividly come through and attitude and the help of one's fellow man turns out to be as important as food, as life is reduced to its most basic elements. The only other film I've seen that communicates this as emotionally was Peter Morley's documentary Kitty: A Return to Auschwitz, but that was about an essential mother/child bond.
Even during the camp experience, though, some subtleties are lost by lack of context for an English-speaking audience, as a few scenes were confusing to me as there was evidently significances if a character was speaking German or Hungarian, and that difference went by me. The German signage was not translated, so the last part of the boy's Buchenwald experiences was also confusing, unless the point was that he was mystified as well. The voice over narration throughout is, unnecessarily, for philosophical ruminations and does not communicate any additional information than the stark visuals and conversations.
With liberation indirectly providing the first date reference in the film as we presume it is 1945, Daniel Craig has a cameo as an American soldier, in his second appearance in a film in the past year as a Jew, after Munich. His role recalls Montgomery Clift in Fred Zinnemann's 1948 The Search, as one of the few films to also portray the wandering Jews as Displaced Persons amidst the rubble of Europe and their destroyed lives and communities.
The last section is movingly unique and vital viewing as we see Europeans, who we know from France to Russia but here particularly Hungarians, will settle into their amnesia and denial of responsibility, what a survivor in a documentary called "the 81st blow" that is the worst of all. The survivors seem like ghosts in their tattered prison garb as haunting images that affront and challenge returning normality like echoes of a nightmare that should go away in the light of day. While issues of vengeance are included in passing, the survivors are suffering from post-traumatic stress and cannot communicate what happened to them in language that the curious, whether family, friends or strangers, can understand-- or want to understand. The visceral impact is again marred by duplicative philosophizing.
Ennio Morricone's score emphasizes the potential for humanity, with beautiful vocalizations by Lisa Gerrard.
As to the cinematography, Mark Urman, head of ThinkFilm's U.S. theatrical department, explained in an interview with indiewire, that the film used bleached-bypass color prints, with laser-applied subtitles: "In the concentration camps, it becomes more monochromatic. And after the liberation, the color comes back in." I saw it still in first run at NYC's Film Forum and the print was already scratched quite a bit, and there were frequent white on white subtitles. (2/17/2006) > (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)
Additional background from Anny Dietz on February 7, 2006 (a fellow member of Forest Hills Jewish Center), posted with her permission:
I agree with you that not knowing Hungarian or being of Hungarian origin may have been to your disadvantage, but being a daughter of Holocaust survivors and having been raised in the shadow of the Hungarian genocide, understanding every innuendo, every move and word, for me this movie was a masterpiece.
Why were there Jews left alive in Budapest? Because if you were aware of the history of Hungarian Jews during WWII, you would have instantly known why: there was not enough time to destroy them. The Germans entered Hungary on March 19, 1944. They had exactly one year to do there what they did in Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc. in 6 years. The deportations started around Shavuot (April-May) of 1944 from the outskirts of the country leaving Budapest to the end and since the war was over the following May, there was no time to deport them as well. Jews from Budapest had to be terribly unlucky to be sent to the chambers. It was very haphazardly done from the capital.
That's why my parents, who survived, and grandparents, who did not, were sent to the camps because they did not live in the capital. My father-in-law, who did, was sent to labor camp and only from there was he sent to the camp where he perished. My mother-in-law with [Anny’s husband] was an infant (17 days old) when the Germans came in, were hiding in one of Wallenberg's protective homes and survived.
There were several groups of Jews who were taken from labor camps to the front in the Ukraine. They worked most of them to death. I just sponsored the publication of the memoirs of a gentleman from my home town. He dealt with his forced labor camp experience in the Ukraine and has an entire chapter dedicated to my uncle who was with him there. My uncle survived, too. It is written in Hungarian.
This was an historical and autobiographical movie which recreated the atmosphere of the time with few words. Having had a little background in the history of the Hungarian Jews of the time, would have made your cinema experience different.
My only problem with the movie was that it was done by Hungarians per se, who do not deserve to have the ability to create such a magnificent work. They are still Jew haters (Eichman had very little to do in Hungary because the Hungarians themselves were very willing executioners) and I personally cannot understand how they could reflect the pain, the somber reality of the time. Perhaps, the Hungarian who kept on asking the kid upon his return if it was true that there were gas chambers and his satisfied face when the boy did not give him a direct answer, is a reflection of their refusal to admit their own guilt.
Spirit of the Beehive (El Espíritu de la colmena) is a lovely insight into the mind of a child, where fantasy mixes with reality and stories with dreams. This is a beautiful metaphor for the magic of the movies and co-writer/director Víctor Erice illustrates the connection further by having the impact of the film Frankenstein with Boris Karloff on a young girl as the pivotal plot point.
Ana Torrent is a wide-eyed innocent who carries the film, as we completely enter into how she integrates her daily life, both the quotidian happenings and the unusual with scary stories her older sister teases her with and the film. Her beautiful eyes are expressive and haunting. As someone who had an older sister with all kinds of outlandish tales that were gullibly believed, the sibling teasing is the most natural I've seen on film.
Erice has a completely original take on the Frankenstein story, no matter how many times it has been referenced in other movies. "Ana" powerfully relates to the little girl in the film, even though she does not understand any of the darker emotions or outcomes. The film inspires her to seek out misfits and outcastes, with unintended consequences and impacts on the adult world.
But the adult world is the weakest part of the film. While sometimes we only see her parents, teachers and servants seemingly mysterious behavior from her perspective, their obliviousness and self-involvement in their own intellectual and romantic pursuits isn't really explained, even as her father's pompous hobby somehow gives the film its title. It might be some sort of commentary on how adults have their own way of blending fantasy and reality.
Seen in a new 35 MM print at NYC's Film Forum , the cinematography was beautiful. The rural scenes of fields and horizon are lovely.
I wonder if this insightful look inside a child's mind influenced such films as I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura) and Paperhouse. but the film seems so fresh and creative I was surprised that it was made in 1973.(2/16/2006)
Bubble is Steven Soderbergh's clear-eyed, humanistic, non-didactic illustration of Thoreauian lives of quiet desperation in the heartland of America. It works very effectively as an authentic response to Lars Von Trier's theatrical screeds.
His creative use of non-professional actors also shows up all those de-glamorized efforts of Hollywood actors, such as in North Country. The film is very realistically set in the rust state of Ohio (and briefly West Virginia), that we first see almost like snap shots of double wide trailers, the donut shop, church, bar and, well, not much else in the town. There is a visually startling and somewhat disturbing interlude in a McMansion suburb that seems like a foreign country compared to their environment.
In particular, the setting reminds us that not all light industry has left for China, that there are still a bare few dead-end jobs for school drop-outs. The doll factory at the center of the story is a powerful visual metaphor with its component body parts gradually worked on -- from the latex molds into popped heads, through the eye painting, lashes and hair gluing, and assemblage, not unlike a Mr. Rogers episode that tours how toys are made. The second workshop we see of shovel-making seems to continue the metaphor to Sisyphus.
TV sitcoms try mightily to make work place relationships the new family, but Soderbergh does a wonderful job of showing these folks in the context of both their family and work environments, like a dramatic, blue-collar take on The Office. The characters' back stories and relationships are quietly revealed through casual conversations. I particularly liked the film's sympathy toward realistic family arrangements that drag on their lives -- care giver responsibilities, health issues, ex's, lack of cars, etc.
Scriptwriter Coleman Hough's set-up is dramatically simple and as classic as Picnic -- the lives of two friends who have established a routine are suddenly disrupted by the appearance of a very different, attractive, very complicated, possibly prevaricating, third person, putting the differences between the first two in sudden sharp relief. In one week, their lives are changed forever.
Soderbergh is particularly good at showing us the view points of essentially inarticulate, non-introspective characters. So we can see that how they describe a situation is not exactly how it really happened, because they don't have the words to express themselves, or perhaps the self-awareness to understand manipulation. The actors' pregnant pauses are used very meaningfully. While there is a mystery to keep our attention, the why and who dunnit (which I've heard is explained more on supplements on the DVD) are less important than the visual character studies.
The tensions in these interactions are created more by Soderbergh's sly editing (as well as the Americana-tinged background music) than with the emoting. There is one very exaggeratedly lit scene in a church to tip us off that one of the characters may be a bit more unstable than we think and doesn't quite fit into the kitchen sink realism of the rest of the film.
I made a point of seeing the film on the big screen, at the Landmark Sunshine in NYC, and was rewarded with lovely cinematography, particularly in the shades of the factory and work environments.
Stay through the end credits as the images come together to continue the commentary on dolls and the American Dream. (2/15/2006)
The Libertine takes place during the reign of England's Charles II, in movie terms at the same time as Restoration and Stage Beauty. But this far darker and literally muddier view of the impact of the fall of the Puritans on culture and, like The Crucible, is intended less to be an historical pageant than to defend artistic and sexual freedom in the late 20th century, with syphilis standing in for AIDS, a point that gets confused at the end.
Adapting his own play, Stephen Jeffreys emphasizes its theatrical origins with extensive defenses of the role of the theater. Johnny Depp as the titular nicknamed Earl of Rochester, who is very much not the fop in extensive wigs, is a witty, sexy, seductive Oscar Wilde type with bon mots and intellectual vulgarisms.
So it's a bit disappointing that the Earl's king-commissioned piece de resistance is more like a tableau by Karen Finley crossed with the Open Theater and Caligula than as lasting literature which Wilde did produce while also making his life his art and artistic statement. Maybe the Earl was making the point that in a licentious and jaded Gilded Age one has to go to extremes for political protest. His articulate but disease-wracked defense of the king at the House of Lords is moving to show that politics itself is theater, but seems a sad finale for a broken man, if I'm interpreting it correctly.
Depp is the center of attention, but this could be promoted as Samantha Morton Talks! While she has been captivating in pantomimes or virtually nonverbal, suffering roles in Sweet and Lowdown, Code 46, Morvern Callar, In America and Minority Report, here she is womanly and feisty as the Earl's protégé. Certainly this is her first strong woman with a lot of beautiful hair.
So it's ironic that Depp actually has less chemistry on screen with her than with Rupert Friend, playing his third released pretty hunk role of the year after Pride & Prejudice and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.
There are several other cast members from P & P who get to fully unleash other sides of their talents, such as Tom Hollander and Rosamund Pike as the Earl's loyal wife (and there's an implication at the end that the family's bitterness may have resulted in destruction of his literary legacy). Claire Higgins is marvelous as a cynical theater manager. John Malkovich is the best Charles II on screen yet, making him a real man and politician despite the costumes.
The location shooting on English estates is beautiful. Either it was a very rainy season or mud was intentionally shipped in for realism. The dark interiors authentically recreate a pre-electric environment.
While Michael Nyman's music doesn't seem to make any period effort, it is beautiful.
There's extensive memorial tributes in the closing credits, including to Marlon Brando and Hunter S. Thompson.
In Yesterday, South African writer/director Darrell Roodt illustrates the crises of AIDS, health care in the third world, the hope of education and the role of women in Africa with vivid visuals and a simple story.
While some characters are drawn in the script as too nice to be believable --in moving but restrained acting the titular mother is too saintly, the fluent Zulu speaking white public health doctor she finally reaches after four days of waiting shows no strains for the demands on her time, the school teacher who literally suddenly appears and befriends her is too helpful -- this quiet story poignantly communicates a lot of information and humanizes statistics.
The opening shots emphasize the vastness of distances in rural Africa as a prime impediment to the delivery of modern heath care -- even for those determined women who try to seek it for the benefit of their children. The camera is a passive observer of the personal and social details of the mother's life with her treasured young daughter "Beauty," even as it is substantially into the film before we get insights into her seemingly superhuman strengths and how she came to be so independent, with very brief flashbacks.
We get a matter-of-fact view of the arduousness of subsistence living village life--gathering water, food and laundry-- and the down side of "it takes a village" as the ignorance, fear and gossip are even more powerful than in urban Philadelphia. One weakness in the film, though, is not identifying if it is happening now as it's hard to believe South Africans, urban and rural, are still this naive about AIDS, though the recent Cape of Good Hope also showed South Africans still insisting that AIDS was a foreigners' disease. Similarly, there are interstitial labels of seasons to show time passing, but what happens seems too concentrated than can really happen in a single year, so may be metaphorical.
The film takes a jarring turn to another layer of social issues when the mother, probably uniquely in her community, concedes to the doctor's insistence to confront her miner husband in the city about their condition, a request that seems simplistically basic to the doctor but the wife has to surmount enormous odds to accomplish. Even simple medical instructions are mountains to climb. We get a graphic impression of the difficulties of the husband's life and their relationship, even as over time it changes under the overwhelming pressures of reality.
The cinematography of rural to urban South Africa geography, from endless horizon to city buses, is stunning.
The songs by Mpahleni Latozi, performed by Madosini, are particularly evocative.
The film is inevitably a tear-jerker, but not a sentimental one. One can't help but lose it when the wife and mother finally breaks down and cries -- before picking herself and doing what needs to be done.
I viewed the film on PBS TV and the concluding panel discussion by experts was way too boring to sit through compared to the visceral impact of the film.
The Intruder (L'Intrus) is a visual pilgrimage through a mysterious life.
Grizzled Michel Subor plays "Louis Trebor" like Jason Bourne as an old man with a hidden past, living simply in an isolated hut in the woods for justifiably paranoid reasons (but attracting pretty young women who can be useful to him). We learn more about him through dreams, flashbacks and a journey that may unfold chronologically or not, as well as through his brusque interactions with family, lovers, business associates and a striking nemesis. Like The Limey, the film resonates with parent/child regrets and a suspicious past revealed through clips from an old film with the same actor as a young man (here Paul Gégauff's 1965 adventure film Le Reflux).
In a complete contrast of moods, we meet his son Sidney (Grégoire Colin) who has to be the sexiest house husband in the world, as he sweetly and seductively does household repairs and cares for a baby, a toddler and every need of his working wife. Surely director/co-writer Claire Denis must have created him as a woman's fantasy if ever there was one and a lesson to other filmmakers on filming foreplay. There's an additional extended scene where he seeks his father in the woods while carefully carrying his angelic baby in a pouch. He is everything his father is not and has every relationship his father is incapable of sustaining; no wonder he thinks his father is "a lunatic." I spent the rest of the film in dread that something bad would happen to him as the true nature of the heart of his alienated father is very gradually played out before our eyes.
The film is a puzzle, but Subor is ruthlessly fascinating as we watch him traverse countries and negotiate nefarious deals, and the voice-over narration for Denis's Beau Travail was annoying anyway. We have to figure out from skylines and incidental signage that he is traveling to Geneva, Korea and the South Pacific. Time passing is indicated by the seasons changing and scars being created and healing. There are lots of images of water for cleansing and for distancing. Continuing her fascination with the morphing of colonialism into globalization, as well as playing a bit on stereotypes of the Mysterious Orient and Russian criminals, Denis has incorporated elements from Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Gauguin and Marlon Brando's Tahiti idylls and a 40-page memoir by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, the last for the title and heart-transplant plot used for an ironic theme of limited immortality which does have consequences.
While "Louis" thinks he's succeeded in being above boundaries, rules and morals, there is some amusement in the last act as the locals don't quite know what to do with him and try to help him solve his quixotic odyssey, even as he again lies in isolation.
Several people in the audience left in frustration at the elliptical, but strikingly beautiful, story telling method. The unconventional narrative does raise a lot of plot questions on details. (1/11/2006) Interview with Director
No. 17 Is Anonymous is a gripping cross between CSI and the post-9/11 Portraits in Grief bios of the victims that were in The New York Times. But where in the U.S. we're used to TV shows about murders of "John Does" in Cold Case files, this is Israel and so a bombing of a bus between Tiberius and Tel Aviv in June 2002 is just another terrorist attack.
What is different is that for the first time there is An Unknown Victim. And that there was a documentary filmmaker intrigued by this anonymity; David Ofek seems to be the only who cared, month after month.
Whereas U.S. forensics shows focus on high-tech equipment and data analysis, with almost no information available from the completely burned body, Ofek finds that thinking of the victim as a distinct human being, with a personality interacting with other people, is the way to try to solve his identity. With a very low tech video technique (we see him and his microphone and equipment throughout, and he serves as a model for a sketch at one point), suitable for an Independent Lens episode on PBS, Ofek not only conducts an investigation but serves as a guide through the fascinating assortment of people who each contribute to a piece of the puzzle in his search.
While we meet in depth a few of the diverse survivors of the attack, with the fascinating accidents of chance for who was on the bus, most of the self-portraits talked to the camera, with their home photos to illustrate their stories, are from key people who try to provide clues - a forensic anthropologist, a disabled employer who had reported a missing home health aide, a sketch artist who marvelously puts the lie to the usefulness of computer facial analysis, a disabled veteran who runs a profit-making business from these deaths, etc. They are of a broad range of ages, family situations, ethnicities, religiosity, years in Israel, etc. The characteristics they use to identify themselves are in contrast to the information that can be collected about the anonymous victim.
The search is absolutely riveting. While the police seem apathetic and careless (there are funny scenes where the filmmaker tracks the official investigators down on vacation and at self-congratulatory promotion ceremonies), they seem as overwhelmed by the number of attacks as cops in U.S. big cities who have to shrug and move on with homicide cases.
There is no question that it is due to the filmmaker's obsession that the case is pursued. He gives up on one of the busy contacts and sets out on his own to find an avocational expert who provides key advice on how to proceed. He's the one who thinks to look through unclaimed items from the bus for clues. He tracks down translators in unusual places to help him identify one possibility. He's the one who puts up notices at bus stops and in the newspapers and gets radio interviews to promote the case. His passion creates sympathy as folks help him more and more with either expertise or fresh nuggets of information. We hear in the narration "one month has gone by," "three months has gone by," and so on for six months.
In what is almost a travelogue through Israel's diverse communities, of visitors, foreign workers and immigrants, of the religious and the informally secular, what turns out to be important are the vagaries of memory -- a casual comment, a cute guy's flirtation with a pretty girl-- and the there but for fortune - getting on a wrong bus, an impromptu vacation day.
It's about not making presumptions about people without knowing them. It's about what makes us human and individual.
This documentary is ripe for fictionalization as a movie, but it is very moving as a fascinating real-life tale.(12/5/2005)
The first half of Private is frustrating as a set piece of European intellectualism and inauthenticity strained to establish a logic puzzle mind game, but the second half rises to the level of universal humanity.
There have been many movies about the stubborn old idealist who infuriates his family with his implacability (Man of La Mancha, The Field, Straight Story, etc.) but co-writer/debut director Saverio Costanzo sets this one as a barely-believable Shakespeare-quoting, educated, middle class, secular Palestinian holding on to his house and his very large family amidst the volatility of the West Bank territories. Each member of the family represents a type that has some similarity to the family in Raisin in the Sun -- the exhausted housewife who just wants her kids to be safe, the beautiful eldest, enscarfed daughter who argues against leaving for a European education to the apathetic sports-mad teen boy radicalized by his conflicts with Israelis to the traumatized little girl and the big-eyed curious, adorable little brother.
With much of the film shot in dark as shaky, pseudo-documentary digital video like night vision goggles, the forced comparison to Diary of Anne Frank doesn't quite hold up as the family is locked into their living room only at night by occupying Israeli soldiers as it is a principle not survival itself that the father is insisting upon. They seem to have complete daily freedom to shop and go to school (they say "madrassa" on the soundtrack but we see them do math homework not rotely memorize The Koran), but not to host friends. While the film does well build up the tension of this nightly, stressful ritual, that is also true in nonpolitical hostage films from Petrified Forest, to Key Largo, Desperate Hours, and on and on.
The Israeli soldiers are as much types as the soldiers in the TV series Over There. There's the barking sergeant, the sensitive intellectual and the bored joker just doing his job, but with the casual mention that these frustrated reservists are commuting distance from home, as was seen in Kippur. The film is also unfair in only hinting at what attacks they, let alone their families at their home towns, have endured from Palestinian civilians to make them so aggressive and jumpy.
While it is ironic that the Palestinians and the Israelis have to speak broken English to each other to communicate, the larger themes are confused in perception to the audience because it is not clear what the participants do and do not understand as most of the conversations are translated for us in the subtitles. This is important because the second half of the film reaches an intriguing point where each side slowly starts to perceive each other as individuals and not as just "the other."
The turning point is when the oldest daughter breaks the rules restricting the family downstairs and spies on the soldiers billeted upstairs. Motivated initially by some kind of revenge fantasy, she is gradually overcome by natural curiosity and perhaps voyeurism as they are hunky young men, and begins to parse out their relationships from their body language and activities, which she later relates fantastically to her equally curious younger brother. Shot only from her viewpoint, we begin to realize that a narrow sliver is really how each side has been seeing the other all along.
The film leaves no doubt that such insights are brief blips in the ongoing struggles between both sides that leave tragedy in the wake of the continued cycle of miscommunications and misperceptions.
Oddly, this is the second recent Italian film about terrorism (Good Morning, Night (Buongiorno, notte)) that uses a Pink Floyd-related song too heavy-handedly on the soundtrack (here a cover of "Perfect Sense, Part 1" from Roger Waters's Amused to Death). (11/26/2005)
Innocent Voices (Voces inocentes) is a beautiful looking dramatization of the impact of civil war on children and families, in this case the drawn-out war between the U.S.-backed government of El Salvador vs. guerrillas. It is pretty much the old anti-war poster "War is unhealthy for children and other living things" come to life.
The stark, gripping images and evocative rain forest cinematography, however, are undercut by a socialist realism style of noble peasantry that is stereotypically pedantic and this horrific war could just as well be taking place in a galaxy far, far away for all the individuation it is given. Probably the same film could be made about U.S.S.R. involvement in Afghanistan in the same decade, which had similar disastrous results on humanity.
The gorgeous matriarch, played by Leonor Varela. is a noble Mother Courage who will go to any lengths to protect her children like a lioness, recalling Sophia Loren in Two Women. She is in the impossible situation of living in a village on the border between the two combatants who recognize no civilian free-zones even as the residents try desperately to continue their normal lives of work, church and school, particularly for their children.
The noble village priest is a lot like Henry Fonda's in The Fugitive from 1947 (director John Ford's film version of Graham Greene's novel The Power and the Glory). The guerrilla uncle is not only a bearded sensuous hunk, but he carries around a guitar with his rifle and sings mournful, banned songs.
The central boy hero is captivating as played by Carlos Padilla, as he switches back and forth from playful boy (and the scenes of youthful optimism amidst the war are funny and sweet) to "man of the house" to infatuated boyfriend to radicalized recruit. The brutal irony of the fear of reaching his 12th birthday as the point of eligibility for forced recruitment into the army is palpably conveyed, with striking visual imagery, explosive interruptions of daily life and slow motion horror. However, he is, sadly, virtually identical to the resourceful young survivor of Iraq's wars in Turtles Can Fly (Lakposhtha hâm parvaz mikonand), and recalls World War II's Anne Frank and the boy Montgomery Clift befriended in The Search or the boy soldiers of the last gasps of Germany and Japan who have recently been portrayed. The lengthy closing scroll finally makes the point that boys are being violently robbed of their childhoods all over the world, and doubtless we'll be seeing films about Sudan and the dirty diamond wars.
Some of the secondary characters have more personality, such as a local bus driver, and the playmates.
The opening scroll points out that this civil war stopped having any ideological or policy meaning and the film shows how brutality and revenge carries on with an inertia all their own, driving out those who want peace.
The score and song selections are beautiful, though tracks by Ozomatli and Bebe probably aren't of the period.(11/8/2005)
Proof hones in on the emotional relationships in the play. With Rebecca Miller jointly credited with David Auburn on adapting his play, this is less coy about who did what to whom when in reality or delusion than it is about connections between people.
The flashbacks cut effectively back and forth and smooth out where each character is coming from.
"Catherine," the daughter of a brilliant mathematician who is somewhat modeled on John Nash's struggles with madness which were portrayed in A Beautiful Mind, is still the focal point of attention. But with the other characters fleshed out more Gwyneth Paltrow has more to naturalistically react to than the stage actresses (I saw it on Broadway with a mercurial Anne Heche). Paltrow brings unexpected fragility to the role and makes her sarcastic accusations to her sister come out of personal pain and not just spitefulness. You really see that she is emotionally ravaged from putting her life and mind on hold for a father with a very strong personality.
Anthony Hopkins is unusually paternal as the father and you understand her attractions and fear of him, as well as why the sister had to flee how insecure she felt there, as Hope Davis manages to breathe some life into a strident character. We see very clearly the demands of being a caregiver to a legend. Unlike in Iris at the end of careers, we do ache at the sacrifices the young caregiver has made and how this claustrophobic existence has led to her own crippling doubts about her work, her life and her sanity.
Jake Gyllenhaal is the hunkiest, most adorable, rock 'n' rollin' math graduate student since Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting and could help increase math enrollments around the country. But as irresistible as he is, and their relationship is literally more believably fleshed out as young people than in the play, we also can share Paltrow's suspicion of him. But we see more of his activities, as the film opens up the play, so we too clearly know before she that he has regained in our credibility as he seeks his proof. I don't mind that the film adds to the romantic aspects and drawn out coda as I thought the play tempted unfulfillingly in that direction and it is a means to help her regain the multiple meanings of proof -- as evidence, as trust, as confidence.
Director John Madden keeps the camera moving actively during long dialog interchanges, reflecting "Catherine"s agitated state of mind.
The house and academic setting well establish the atmosphere, particularly when there's more people around, though some of the outdoor shots seemed like filler.
The score is occasionally intrusive, but the concluding voice-over is even more annoying and unnecessary. (10/12/2005)
Everything is Illuminated is a simplified interpretation of something more than half of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel. This version is more about changes in Eastern Europe from World War II through post-Cold War and how the younger generation relates to that history as a family memory.
Debut director/adapter Liev Schreiber retains some of the humor and language clashes of the novel, mostly through the marvelous Eugene Hutz as the U.S.-beguiled Ukrainian tour guide. He is so eye-catching that the film becomes more his odyssey into his country and his family as he goes from his comfortable milieu in sophisticated Odessa to the heart of a cynical, isolated land that has been ravaged by conquerors through the Communists and now capitalists, with both Jews and non-Jews as detritus. As funny as his opening scenes are when he establishes his cheeky bravura, we later feel his fish-out-of-waterness in his own country when he tries to ask directions of local yokels.
Shreiber uses Elijah Wood, as the American tourist, as an up tight cog in a visual panoply, as his character is less verbal than as one of the narrators in the book. He and Hutz play off each other well until the conclusion that becomes more sentimental in this streamlined plot. Once the grandfather's story takes over in the last quarter of the film, marvelously and unpredictably enacted by Boris Leskin, the younger generation does not seem to undergo any catharsis, as they just tidy up the closure. Schreiber does a wonderful job visualizing the human urge to document history. One of his consultants in the credits is Professor Yaffa Eliach and her style of remembering pre-Holocaust shtetl life through artifacts clearly inspired the look and it is very powerful and effective.
The Czech Republic stands in for the Ukraine and the production design staff were able to find memorable symbols of change in the cities, towns and countryside, as this is now primarily a road movie, and the long driving scenes do drag a bit. Schreiber retains some of the symbolism from the book, particularly of the moon and river, but having cut out the portions of the book that explain those, they just look pretty or ominous for atmosphere and no longer represent time and fate.
As W.C. Fields would have predicted, the dog steals most of his scenes for easy laughs. In general, Schreiber does go for more poignancy than the book. It is irresistibly touching, especially those who haven't read the book, but less morally and emotionally messy.
The film is enormously uplifted by its marvelous soundtrack, which ranges from songs and instrumentals from Hutz's gypsy band Gogol Bordello to traditional tunes to contemporary tracks to Paul Cantelon's klezmer fusion score.
This is not a Holocaust film per se, being a kind of mirror image of The Train of Life (Train de vie) as about memory of a time that is freighted with meaning now, but will resonate more with those who have an emotional connection to that history. Such as the dramatic parallels with the experiences of a member of our Fiction Book Club Tamar Rogoff, who choreographed a dance piece The Ivye Project in Belarus around some similar themes.)(10/6/2005) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)
For more on Hutz and his music see: The Pied Piper Of Hützovina.
You don't have to wait for the final credits of Chain to see that Jem Cohen was funded by the New York Foundation for the Arts as it is painfully obvious that this is an artsy New Yorker's discovery of the malling of the country and that he read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich as he didactically puts those quotes in his characters' mouths, as well as the other listed sources.
Cohen must not have spent a lot of time out of cities as he is shocked, shocked to discover that malls are the same the whole world over, as this picaresque tale splices together images from everywhere (like Walter Kirn's Up in the Air posits Airport World) that older independent stores and motels get knocked down for chain stores and suites, that less profitable chains get replaced by bigger behemoths. His insights can be attained by anyone sitting for 15 minutes in any mall food court or suburban traffic jam. He doesn't distinguish visually or sociologically between malls that are suburban downtowns to category-killers like Wal-Mart that have no modern agora at all.
The structure of this faux docudrama is intriguing. Cohen alternates monologues by two fictional characters, a runaway teenager, "Amanda" (Mira Billotte), working pick-up jobs who sees the endless consumerism of American malls as half-empty promises, and a Japanese company woman on a business trip, who sees the malls as half-full frozen upbeatness, which she compares to cherry blossoms falling at their peak. However, the two actresses speak with such droning monotones that I worried that they badly needed anti-depressants, though Miho Nikaido's very thick accent as "Tamiko" may excuse her lack of affect.
I kept expecting these two to meet in their final limbos but there is no such climax. A self-conscious night vision video commentary by the teen squatting in an abandoned structure looks cool, but recalls Marc Singer's urban portrait of the homeless in Dark Days. The Japanese business woman's quest to develop a business plan that would replace a failing steel mill with an American-style amusement park she wants to call "Floating World" duplicates a notion from China that was much more effectively and ironically portrayed in The World (Shijie) and cross-cultural rapaciousness of the landscape was poignantly portrayed in Japanese Story.
Cohen spends a lot of footage photographing sunrise and sunset of modern cities' profiles, to make them look futuristic as in Code 46, suburban highwayscapes stretching into the horizon and mall signs. He does capture some amusing and poignant shots, like the birds nesting in a Sam's Place sign, with some very heavy-handed points, like a shot of the Enron symbol.
Cohen is an accomplished photographer and cinematographer but as a writer, his substance is just too weak. (9/30/2005)
I saw Harakiri (Seppuku) as part of the Summer Samurai festival at the Film Forum because it has not been included in IFC's Samurai Saturdays.. And am I glad that I saw this new print on a big screen. This is a brilliant use of a narrow period genre to explosively indict politics and culture. Writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Yasuhiko Takiguchi surely must have been as inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo, Ambrose Bierce and Howard Hawks' Westerns as much as by samurai literature and movies.
The film begins deceptively as a story within a story, seemingly providing a traditional example of upholding samurai honor, such as in the conventional, oft-retold tale of The 47 Ronin. The context is set at a time when the central government, the shogunate, is supplanting local clans and arbitrarily unemploying thousands of people, notably their samurai, forcing them into the mercenary mode of ronin at best and begging for food at worse. But the parallels to the 20th century are made repeatedly explicit as the samurai who comes to this clan seeking help is from Hiroshima.
Very gradually we get further insight on the tale within a tale, as we see more flashbacks within flashbacks into what each character has been doing before these confrontations and we get uneasy inklings that the moral of the story may not be what it appears at first and the stakes get higher and higher with almost unbearable tension.
It is almost halfway through the film until we see a female and we suddenly see an alternative model of masculinity, where a priority is put on family, support, education and creative productivity. In comparison to the macho opening relationships, with their emphasis on formal militaristic loyalty to a hierarchy, a loving husband and father is practically a metrosexual. Seeing the same stalwart samurai making casual goo goo sounds to his grandbaby puts the earlier, ritualized scenes in sharp relief, particularly the recurring image of the clan's armor which seems less and less imposing and is finally destroyed as an empty symbol.
The psychological tension in the confrontations in the last third of the film is more excruciating than the actual violence. Even when we thought we already knew the outcome from the flashbacks, the layers of perception of relationships and personalities are agonizingly peeled away with each thrust of a sword to reveal the depths of the horrifying hypocrisy of the political and social structure. And those are just the overwhelming cultural resonances that a 21st century American can glean. Like Downfall (Der Untergang), it reveals the inhumane mentality that led to World War II.
The repeating motif of long walks then confrontations down empty corridors emphasizes the stultifying bureaucratic maze that entraps the characters. The revenge motifs are accented by startlingly beautiful cinematography that recalls traditional Japanese art, including drops of blood like first snow flakes then a waterfall.
The over all effect of this masterpiece is emotionally draining.
2046 takes a central character from Days of Being Wild (A Fei jing juen) and In the Mood for Love (Fa yeung nin wa) further on in his life, but as a hook to meditate on the roots of memory, love, artistic imagination and the impact of the passage of time.
While it is not essential to see the films as a trilogy for their plots, they do provide background
on the fairly inscrutable character played by Tony Leung and give a context to the visualizations of the memories of love that haunt him to help explain how he treats each woman differently in the continuous roundelay of A loves B who looks like C who left D who has the same name as E who pines for F, or something like that as I did have a bit of trouble keeping track of the women, each one exquisitely beautiful and captivating to us if not to him (Ziyi Zhang tears at your heart though not his), in flash backs and flash forwards as he examines how each relationship is unfulfilling. He seems to resent it when a love is successfully requited.
Leung's "Mr. Chow" moves from tabloid journalist to a pulp science fiction writer much like Kilgore Trout in Kurt Vonnegut novels, where the imagining of the traveler's story serves as commentary both on the passage of time and how, like "Keyser Soze" in The Usual Suspects, artists take elements of their lives and the people they meet like a God to create whatever society, relationships, fate or luck they want.
Writer/director Kar Wai Wong draws on images from other international films as well, such as references to Marlene Dietrich's look and the train in Shanghai Express, Hitchcock's Vertigo and even Blade Runner. He continues to play on male fascination with the seductive stereotyped image of Chinese women in cheongsam, from the past to the future, as this callous yet romantic gambler treats one lover as a prostitute, plays cupid for a neighbor he finds fascinating and fictionalizes women into spiky-haired androids with the open-eyed blankness of anime characters with flashing high heels. He has these robots of a possibly future 2046 have delayed emotional reactions - much as it is only through this long narrated introspection that he can therapeutically process his own feelings from the past, particularly from all that happened in hotel room #2046, the opposite of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
I'm sure I only got some of the cross-cultural or political or historical resonances as characters are identified as coming or going to Hong Kong from Japan or Singapore or Cambodia, or the religious contrasts with Confucianism as the film is set on different Christmas Eves during the 1960's (emphasized by wonderful use of American pop tunes, such as by Nat King Cole), that seem in Proustian style to set off his reveries. "Mr. Chow" caustically comments about celebrating birthdays several times a year by different calendars, which I presume implicitly refers to different impending New Years as well. Silences and the swelling instrumental score are also used beautifully.
Christopher Doyle repeats his gorgeously lush cinematography from his earlier pairings with Kar Wai Wong that recreates classic film noir for color, evidently helped by using decades-old lenses, that contrasts with the sharp angles of the imagined future. (8/18/2005)
Tony Takitani is the first full length adaptation of a Haruki Murakami tale and it beautifully translates his ethereal prose themes to visuals. There's his characteristic isolated man, mysterious women who come and go and recur, American jazz and obsessions that all link to Japan's post-war experiences and the prisons we make for ourselves. The film begins like a narrated slide show as we see biographical images of "Tony" as a child and his father. Gradually, the stills move for longer periods as we learn more about each man and focus on "Tony" as a young man who has gravitated to free-lance mechanistic illustration as a perfect professional emotionless counterpart to his internal condition. The characters occasionally take up the narration in almost the only dialogue we hear. The second half of the film explores the nature of loneliness and love. The younger woman he falls in love with literally comes with baggage, as each have a fear of emptiness that they assuage through their own means. While how she wore her clothes attracted him in the first place, the world is divided between those who are pack rat collectors and those who are not - a division "Tony" thinks he can cross and suppress, only to have those feelings reappear with resonances, with a bit of a spooky reference to Hitchcock's Vertigo trying to morph into Here Comes Mr. Jordan with almost an O. Henry twist. While most viewers will think the woman's clothes shopping is a fetish (and the montage of her luxuriating in shoe after shoe is humorous), I thought this film was the best since Ghost World to make an effort to capture the sensual, addictive feelings of a collector of objects and not as outsiders for an Errol Morris documentary. As it visually relates her fear of emptiness to the father's and the son's claustrophobic lives, the film lyrically shows how not only is love not enough and how asking one you love to give up something they love destroys love, but the objects themselves will now carry different and unexpected emotions for whomever comes into contact with them. While Ryuichi Sakamoto's gentle score reinforces this meditation on loneliness, I thought we should have heard more of the father's jazz.
The film re-enlivened my own experience. I ran a charitable Used Book & Music Sale for The Forest Hills Jewish Center for 15 years, attracting donations and purchases from obsessives. I did a large pick-up from a recently passed away collector with the exact same hobby as me - taping live broadcasts off the radio. I literally channeled him as a kindred spirit and have kept his tapes ever since -- finally taping my selections over his. (8/3/2005)
The World (Shijie) is one of the saddest films I've ever seen and is a moving visualization of the tragedy of rising expectations.
While it is set very particularly in China, it achingly proves the universality of the twin globalization pulls of modernization and immigration over the past three hundred years around the world, recalling films from Hester Street to The Emigrants (Utvandrarna) , and films about cities in throes of developmental change, like Atlantic City.
These are universally recognizable young people - they rebel against and yet feel tied to their families, regretfully break ties with old friends; they fight with their siblings but bail them out; they get lonely, a bit homesick, and bored; they are jealous and ambitious; and they constantly compromise, particularly the women bargaining with the oldest currency.
With what is a bit heavy-handed symbolism, the film is specifically set in a real amusement park called "The World" on the outskirts of Beijing that replicates landmarks in scaled miniature and focuses on the employees and their extended, inter-connected network of friends and family.
At first, they look to us as swaggering city sophisticates, as they dress-up in international costumes for a park revue, surrounded by emblems of international commercial culture, like fake Louis Vuitton bags and movie posters, such as of Titanic. They jealously and zealously call each other constantly by the most modern cell phone and text messengers, particularly from the encircling monorail that at first seems like a symbol of modern technology, though it is cobbled together from airplane parts--though one woman wistfully notes that she doesn't know anyone who has been on a plane- a frequent response to a call is "I'm on the train." -- but by the end the canned voice of progress is emblematic of the dead end circularity of their lives as they can't get passports to leave, let alone to see the real landmarks.
Travel is a constant theme visually and of conversation - when a country bumpkin shows up, the surprised greeting is "How did you get here?" such that "I bought a ticket." is not self-evident. -- to the security guards riding camels around the fake pyramids and horses around the fake castles, to the six hour bus ride it takes to another city to pay off a relative's gambling debts, and emphasized through fanciful animated interstices. The ironic geographical headings of the chapters emphasize a character's quixotic goal -- "world.com", "Ulan Bator Evening," "Belleville", "Tokyo Story." Striving as they all are, for these folks even Ulan Bator, the depressed capital of Mongolia, looks like a step up.
There are moving scenes when immigrants with different languages try to communicate to share the commonalities in their lives -- a Russian immigrant is terrified when her passport is taken away, while the Chinese woman is envious that she even has one. It is a bit confusing keeping up with the various characters, in and out of their work costumes, especially when the two main characters seemed to change so much without explanation, but they are enormously sympathetic so it is devastating as we see their hopes and dreams, however unrealistic or selfish, defeated. And those who succeed do so on very compromised terms.
They are also not very articulate, which writer/director Zhang Ke Jia compensates for by spending a lot of time setting up individual scenes and watching people interact, as we see how different they are in different contexts with different people, as body language becomes more important than words, whether spoken or in text messages.
While the cinematography was beautiful, the print I saw in New York was a bit scratchy and the English subtitles had several misspellings.
I'm sure a lot of subtitle-dependent viewers lose a lot of the significance of different accents and regional differences among the employees from all over China.(7/15/2005)
Me and You and Everyone We Know is a uniquely quirky take on relationships.
Through an oddball constellation of children, teens, siblings, working stiffs, artists and senior citizens, it comments on consumer society, museums, communication, parenting, and especially sex and romance. As a living tableau of non-Euclidean geometry, the parallel universes of its very individual characters intersect with each other in frank and unexpected ways that are as funny and poignant as they are alarming and charming.
Each person uses language that is literally terms of art grounded in their own age and gender appropriate frames of reference that they create to face the world, as particularly demonstrated in handwritten notes, dots and dashes, computer chat rooms and reconstructed photographs, reminiscent of the blind photographer in Proof documenting surroundings he can't see to be described by people he meets accidentally.
Debut writer/director/star Miranda July ties it all together with an overall sweet tone and through her character's wide-eyed combination of trusting naïveté and Panglossian optimism as she creates her own ideal relationships through living her performance art dioramas. As eccentric as they are, the deftly-edited, inter-connected characters are in touch with reality by having a good relationship with at least one other character, even if they are alienated from another while indomitably exploring a challenging relationship with a third. Each is mature or immature, wise or foolish, daring or complacent, beyond or below their years along different axes of their lives.
July fluidly plays with all the elements of the film medium in visuals, sound, editing, movement, close-ups and creative use of letters, video tapes, optical illusions and computer chats, as well as a lovely soundtrack score and song selection. One of the best scenes is a simple walk down a street that turns into a philosophical metaphor of two people over a lifetime.
The placid settings in a suburban development, a garden apartment complex named Eden Roc, a senior citizens residence and a department store, bathed in cotton candy colored cinematography, emphasizes how the consumer and technological society doesn't fulfill their restlessness, curiosity and need for real human contacts, no matter how hard some of the characters try to make it, including a girl's very modern hope chest.
As a basically responsible, somewhat sad sack divorced dad also dealing with an existential crisis, John Hawkes gets to shine here more than he does in Deadwood or in A Slipping Down Life, which also featured eccentric characters. The child actors, from very young through older teens, are wonderfully natural, individually and in their interactions with siblings, parents, friends and strangers, and reinforce the film's child-like appreciation for where fantasy meets reality.
July uses some of the same dreamy look and threats to suburban complacency as Todd Solondz, but with more humor, humanity and affection, as her collection of misfits are far more lovable, in a Napoleon Dynamite kind of way, even if we're not sure what they've learned from their experiences. We root for them and for her future as a filmmaker. As her character says to another: And I'm not even sick of you yet.(7/9/2005)
Palindromes is a fascinating visual thought experiment. Very parallel to Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth in covering some of the same territory about abortion, writer/director Todd Solontz mostly eschews that film's satire and easy jabs for a protean look at an issue that has a more complicated emotional landscape than advocates on either side usually concede. He does this by literally taking us inside the mind of a young malleable adolescent who intentionally gets pregnant and is surprised at the reactions of those around her. Sometimes we see her as she sees herself, as if we are reading her diary, with her body-hating hopes for a change in hair, skin, age or family, and sometimes we see her as others see her.
Every one wants to control "Aviva" and their hypocritical selfishness is laid bare, regardless of their various good intentions. Her mother sees her still as a baby (a welcome back to the screen for Ellen Barkin who manages to add maternal warmth to hostile dialog) to the discomfiting sexualization (Britney-ization?) of just barely teens that is just barely a step above pedophilia, to how she is seen by pro-life advocates (whose Sunshine Band for "special children" seems almost as exploitative as JonBenet Ramsey's performances) and on in a picaresque dreamscape that crosses a nightmare that is a bit extreme, especially for fans of Welcome to the Dollhouse. Solontz pulls this off by having every image of "Aviva" (according to the director's production notes) "portrayed by two women, four girls (13-14 years old), one 12-year-old boy, and one 6-year old girl" of widely variant size, shape, color and just about every other possible outward characteristic, even though one haranguer points out that no one can ever really change.
Solontz in a hand-out at the theater defined his use of the title as meaning "a condition of stasis and/or immutability; that part of one's personality or character that resists change, stays the same," but I'm not sure that successfully comes through in this odd but provocative film, especially with some of the acerbic dialog and disturbing actions.
Nathan Larson's music is appropriately eerie, with spooky vocalizations by Nina Persson.
Releasing the film without a rating will probably keep it from being seen by young teens which is too bad as it is a frank and fresh look at the pressures on girls from friends, family and society.(6/8/2005) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)
Yes, Crash is theatrical and full of coincidences, in an Amores Perros roundelay as people from a broad array of races and classes are set off by the contact of their cars and then their stereotyped perceptions of each other to bounce off each other. But with this concentrated yet diverse group writer/director Paul Haggis is able to represent sprawling Los Angeles in a manageable and searingly effective ensemble, and show up how non-diverse most movies and TV series are.
The initiating premise is similar to Lawrence Kasdan's 1991 Grand Canyon, but that film looks sunnily optimistic and utopian compared to race relations in L.A. today, as a city where people don't even have to rub shoulders with each other on mass transit. From the superficial exteriors of race, gender, dress and language, each character instantly judges the others out of context, usually to devastating consequences; the layers are pulled back as each is rubbed raw by their contact with the other.
Each action leads to unpredictable consequences that unexpectedly affect another person and no good deed goes unpunished. No one is left unscarred, though not everyone learns a lesson from their experiences, from the most naive (Ryan Philippe putting his preternatural baby face to good effect for a rookie cop) to the most jaded (Don Cheadle using a whole new body language than his other films for his police detective). Every character has flaws, either from their past or present, and almost none are quite the stereotype they seem at first, especially as each is pushed in unexpected directions to do unpredictable actions.
Virtually the entire ensemble is note perfect, particularly Terrence Dashon Howard as an African-American man who frantically adjusts (and misadjusts) his style to fit into his various social environments. Sandra Bullock has surprising dramatic authority, even if her character is less revelatory than the others, and Brendan Fraser as her husband has the only one-note of less credibility as a too young and too stiff district attorney.
The language is frank and lacerating in its confrontations, bordering on Mamet and LaBute territory for its bluntness about American society, but I never cry at those playwrights' works and I cried here out of hopelessness and despair.
Oddly, the soundtrack selections make little ironic note of the Christmas season setting, but there is some quiet commentary of each character listening to separate songs, such as hip hop or country, to subtly indicate the different musical environment they create around themselves (but not, oddly, Lyle Lovett's "L.A. County" though his music would have been more appropriate here than in The Interpreter). There is also the ethereal world music that Haggis used similarly atmospherically in his groundbreaking E Z Streets television series. I saw the film with an integrated, multi-ethnic audience in Queens, NY that in the first half reacted in turn in support of seeing themselves represented on the screen, but throughout the second half was dead silent. This film will make for good discussion groups, particularly in contrast to Do The Right Thing as that phrase takes on many more layers here. I do wonder what input the cast had in the dialog; if Haggis had used a Mike Leigh-style involvement as with Vera Drake, the language could be assured of authenticity as well as electricity. (6/2/2005)
I saw a "screening print" of Bastards of the Party at the Tribeca Film Festival.
It's helpful to understand the full arc of the documentary as a longitudinal exploration of the roots of gang and police violence in Los Angeles in order to get past the opening section to when the theme is finally declared.
The first part is a salute to the Black Panther Party in California in the 1960's that is at first repetition of the usual history and then degenerates further into interviews with self-aggrandizing, middle-aged survivors posturing for posterity in an effort to preserve the images of themselves they want to project as a legacy that becomes my-eyes-glaze-over cliché-ridden rhetoric for the viewer.
Then director/on screen narrator/participant-witness Cle Shaheed "Bone" Sloan comes on the screen to explain his thesis and the movie really starts getting interesting - that the gangs of L.A. are the titular descendants of the Panthers. He then proceeds to go through the changes in Los Angeles decade by decade, though not strictly chronologically, sociologically, culturally, economically and politically (as well as very personally) to demonstrate how the current volatile racial situation step by step resulted from the destruction of the Party.
It serves as chilling non-fiction background to TV series The Shield, for L.A., and The Wire, for how applicable it is to many inner cities across the country.
This very much comes across as a story about outlets for testosterone as basic as throughout human history, here channeled in the late twentieth century through the police, politicians, the media and the drug and violence dealing gangs they in some sense created.
Rather than focusing on the usual truisms about single mother-headed families, though we do hear some ranting about dysfunctional family clichés, we see what happened to the men in the African-American community from childhood on under oppressive economic and political conditions, though no mention is made of whatever impact the welfare system had, laid out as if it is a passionate Ken Burns documentary on Reconstruction.
We also don't hear much about nonviolent alternatives rejected or wasted, because the camera focuses on the most charismatic spokesmen -- even if what they are saying is preening bull for the camera.
I think that at a certain point even the director realizes the gang members' strenuous comparisons of themselves to the Panthers sound like delusions of grandeur and self-justification. The older gangsters reflecting on the world they want to make now for their children is touching, as it contradicts stereotypes of African-American fathers in the inner city. But we don't even hear from a woman until near the end as a mother cries about the funeral of her son.
And then the funerals mount up, as movingly as any film about genocide. The finale, however, weakens the impact of the film as the director appears on screen as a former gang banger (and in excerpts from TV interviews, such as with Larry King) just as self-aggrandizing as the opening subjects so we start questioning his credibility.
The film is also weakened when the changes are explained in left-wing jargon, especially as mouthed by white professors (and it's a shame that virtually no non-white academic experts are interviewed for at least visual balance), though a Senate staffer is very convincing about conspiracies by just factually summarizing a report.
The astounding archival photos and videos capture the zeitgeist, especially in striking material from individuals as we see hair and fashions authentically change.
The film was executive produced by Antoine Fuque, for whom the director acted in Training Day, but other credits were missing in the print and I assume some music as the lack of much hip hop on the soundtrack was inexplicable otherwise, particularly as rap gets zero mention in the film as any kind of influence.
With the extreme language and images in the film, PBS is not an option as a future outlet. (5/28/2005)
The Ballad of Jack and Rose almost works as it examines the pitfalls of extreme idealism.
Writer/director Rebecca Miller sets up an archetypal situation, of an isolated utopian who thinks he can create and control a perfect living environment with his daughter. Daniel Day Lewis makes him too sympathetic, particularly his Pyrrhic politics, while his character's nemeses are too simplistic, even as he finally is defeated by mortality and human nature, or perhaps what some theologians would consider original sin. Lewis as the dad is even more creepily naive than J. M. Barrie in Finding Neverland in wanting innocent children to never grow up, even while indulging his own adult needs.
As with Personal Velocity, Miller well captures conversational dialogue within broken families, particularly across genders, and she is uncannily good at giving us young and older teens, as puberty is presented here as a palpable enemy.
Beau Bridges's good old boy developer is an overly stereotyped builder of ticky tacky McMansions; it would have been more interesting if he was threatening the wetlands with solar powered, energy recycling houses.
The continuing image of poisonous snakes is a bit heavy-handed symbolism of women as the cause for the fall of Eden. While Miller in a Q & A at a showing at the Landmark Sunshine Theater in NYC said she was inspired by the Gnostic Gospels, I saw ironic parallels with Lot's daughters, who coming from Sodom and Gomorrah have much in common with this daughter of a failed commune.
Camilla Belle is excellent as a girl who gradually, albeit a bit scarily, discovers her powers, and her male counterparts are very believable as kids with their own problems. Most of the audience was disquietingly dissatisfied with the ending and coda of the film, so much of the questioning to Miller focused on those aspects, as she claimed they were not after-thoughts or revisions. But the writing and characterizations shown did not support the changes she claimed the characters had gone through to justify the denouement.
An interesting comparison can be made with Off the Map which also views an alternative life style through the eyes of a budding teen age girl, but whose family is held together by an earth mother.
The Dylan and other singer-songwriter selections on the soundtrack are very effective. For info about the closing song from a posting by the soundtrack composer. (4/4/2005)
Downfall (Der Untergang) is a gripping docudrama that brings the History Channel to life, though I missed the contextual-providing talking heads and pop-up explanations, especially to know if there was anything new or revisionist in this German view of Hitler's last days in his bunker with his inner circle.
As I am not a regular devotee of military channels, I frequently got confused and misplaced among the ensemble, such that I really needed the closing snapshots to tell me who was whom and what happened to them after the film ends at surrender (documenting that suicide preempted many from being Nuremberg defendants). While I thought these might have been tenacious yes men, my husband does watch those programs and he explained that these advisers were with Hitler from the beginning, unlike Stalinist purges.
My husband also pointed out that some of Hitler's rants, chillingly portrayed by a dynamic Bruno Ganz, are not just paranoid ravings but accurately reflect his clashes with the upper class Prussian career military men who were naysayers to his pre-Stalingrad military successes, whereas his perceptions of the final military situation were quite delusional, especially once the top brass were afraid to tell him the truth.
Evidently, what are new are the quotidian insights of life in the increasingly bizarre bunker provided by Hitler's secretary, which were revealed before she died in a book and interview documentary Blind Spot (Im toten Winkel - Hitlers Sekretärin), an edited version of which was shown on U.S. TV; my husband objected that even she didn't witness some of the scenes that are particularly tense so some poetic license is probably taken. While it is these personal touches that some have complained make Hitler human, I found it more interesting to learn about the inner circle, as he obviously couldn't conduct his reign of terror alone. The film distinguishes among a spectrum of Nazi ideologues and fellow travelers at all levels-- the most fanatic are shown here as strident caricatures, particularly a scary Frau Goebbels who makes "Livia Soprano" look like fun and games, career soldiers, patriots and civilians, including child recruits, while Eva Braun is shown to be naive to the point of lunacy.
Like Rosenstrasse, another contemporary German director's take on the period, director Oliver Hirschbiegel is determined not only to go beyond the old ignorance disclaimers to show the impact of World War II on ordinary Berliners as Hitler dismisses their plight (including, disconcertingly, a symbolically blond, blue-eyed boy whose travails outside the bunker we tensely follow throughout the film) and his loyalists throughout the ranks continue revenge until the last moments, though his insistence that there are no longer any civilians in this war could also apply to the London Blitz he fomented or the Allies' firebombing of Dresden.
Just as the film seems to identify many reasonable Germans, including some at high levels, disgusted with war and the Nazis, both Hitler and Goebbals point out that they have been in power for decades with the acquiescence of the German people.
While the script also carefully includes Hitler's paranoid anti-Semitism as part of his rabid philosophy until the end, the documentary coda about the facts of the Holocaust seem tacked on to assure audiences that the genocidal aspect of the Third Reich is not being ignored amidst choices of tactics, strategy, personality and loyalty.
It's amazing that a docudrama whose outcome we already know can be so taut and riveting, such that you come out of the theater drained. (3/21/2005)
Walk on Water piles layers of personal, family, religious, cultural, historical, employment, geo-political, sexual, geographical, guilt and responsibility issues on two men -- and still makes it work as the gripping story of two individuals whose lives affect each other.
I saw an interview with director Eytan Fox where he said he wanted to imagine the two most opposite men possible and make them deal with each other. With his partner/writer Gal Uchovsky, he focuses on two men who are almost philosophical constructs of dissimilarity yet they come across as real people whose actions and reactions are unpredictable. The central character Eyal is the quintessential sabra, a craggy, macho Mossad agent unable to discuss his feelings about his ravaged marriage, a child of a Holocaust survivor, fatigued with terrorist attacks and revenge, but in the opening moments efficiently murders a Hamas leader.
He is sent by his mentor/father figure on a rogue mission that annoys him in every possible way -- going undercover to gain the confidence of a young German fully integrated into the EU whose every opinion, action, lifestyle and family background he despises, a continental take on Donnie Brasco. They personify Faulkner's dictum that "the past is never dead. It's never even past." as each man learns that the measure of a man is not just what he does today, but the genetics and heritage that make up his identity and does influence his choices -- choices that we hold our breaths to see played out. Lior Ashkenazi captures the screen projecting the relaxed casualness of male camaraderie comfortable from years in the military and then his reactions as he gradually realizes he's been thrust into more complex situations.
Though the situations get a bit too artfully complicated when their somewhat picaresque adventures range from the German's kibbutznik sister to Palestinians to skinheads and a somewhat unnecessary though emotionally satisfying coda, the dialogue does refrain from a couple of the most obvious ironies as each man gradually reveals their true nature to each other.
An Israeli's view of Berlin through a Mercedes Benz hood ornament and hearing "Achtung!" amidst Israeli folk dancing is among the unusual juxtapositions in a movie where the characters can only communicate across the divides in English, amidst the three languages they speak among themselves, as various characters speak Hebrew, German and Arabic.
While the original music by Ivri Lider is particularly good at emphasizing the underlying emotional content and the diverse cultural environs they find themselves in, the selection of popular music they are listening to adds an additional level of knowing commentary, from the agent's preference for Bruce Springsteen, the avatar of rock 'n' masculinity (particularly the symbolism of him favoring "Tunnel of Love", Bruce's bitter elegy on the end of his first marriage before he found True Love and Fatherhood with his home girl), to European pop and oldies novelty songs to Israeli folk and popular songs, including the agent's great discomfort at having to translate a poignant romantic song from the Hebrew. (3/20/2005) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman)
Turtles Can Fly (Lakposhtha hâm parvaz mikonand) is a mesmerizing cross between the Mad Max movies and the old Little Rascals serials - except as bizarre as it looks it takes place in a real, contemporary place, not a post-apocalyptic future where kids are all suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
It is a real life Peter Pan story where children really do take on pirates, but these kids have had to grow up too fast in stomach-turning ways, even as they are still childish in their immature and misguided judgments and playful distractions.
As in Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai), that was set in a diametrically opposite urban environment, a man-child rises to broker between children he takes under his wing and the incomprehensible world around them. This is an upside-down world where tuning in CNN on satellite TV seems both as magical and as plausible as psychic predictions and makes as much sense to physically and emotionally traumatized children who earn their living by harvesting land mines.
Startlingly, this takes place at the exact same time as the documentary Control Room that was filmed not far away, as the Americans are just about to invade Iraq, so that we with growing dread know more of the broader context about what is about to happen than those on screen, even as a U.S. invasion looks like literally an alien invasion in terms of cultural contrasts. The child actors are extraordinary, particularly those who have or are enacting disabilities.
The shell-shocked look on the mysterious young girl at the center of the story is unforgettable, and is as captivating as any on any adult actress. The story line is simple and involving as we through nightmare flashbacks learn more about each child, though there are some factual impossibilities that are annoyingly jarring and disturb the documentary feel of the film.
Set in almost the same beautiful Kurd border terrain as Bahman Ghobadi's previous film of personal lives amidst geo-political chaos Marooned in Iraq (Gomgashtei dar Aragh)), the images of life going on in villages and refugee camps are as striking as those in the film Kandahar (Safar e Ghandehar)).
The English subtitles are atrocious, with misspelling and obvious inaccuracies (a truck is called a car for example) and virtually none of the credits are translated, which is not fair to the creators or to the audience. Surely if the distributor wants a wider audience that could be dealt with. The film feels like it should end with information on where to send contributions to help kids like these - UNICEF?(