Mandel Maven's Nest Flicks:
Romeo & Juliet (and friends) Across the Ethnic Divide
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.
While exploring the Lilith Watch: Critical Guide to Jewish Women in the Movies, TV and Pop Music I have been fascinated by the issues of the presentation of minority ethnicity within a majority culture in movies (primarily through fiction) -including ABCD; Afghan Star; After The Cup: Sons Of Sakhnin United; Almost Peaceful (Un monde presque paisible); American Chai; American Rhapsody; Ararat; Arranged; Astoria; Baadasssss!; The Best Man; Better Luck Tomorrow; Bran Nue Dae; Cape of Good Hope; The Clay Bird (Matir moina); The Debut; Dreaming Lhasa; Even The Rain (También La Lluvia); The Exiles; Fraulein, Gangs of New York; Good Hair; Le Grand Rôle; Head On (Gegen die Wand); House of Sand and Fog; In America; It’s Better to Jump; Killer of Sheep; Korkoro (Liberté); The Lady (My additional notes.); The Last Sentence (Dom Över Död Man); (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) Lemon Tree (Etz Limon); Lost Embrace (El Abrazo partido); May In The Summer; Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran; Mugabe and the White African; The Mystic Masseur; The Necessities Of Life (Ce Qu'il Faut Pour Vivre/Inuujjutiksaq); Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika); Ping Pong Playa, Rabbit-Proof Fence; Raising Victor Vargas; Saving Face; The Sapphires (My additional notes.); A Secret (Un Secret); Smoke Signals; Today’s Special, Tortilla Soup; Tracks (My additional note.); Two Lives (Zwei Leben); Ha Ushpizin; Washington Heights; Whale Rider; What's Cooking.
But I found particularly intriguing how movies view romance between folks from different ethnic/religious (and sometimes class) backgrounds, such as one of my all-time favorites Double Happiness. Virtually all movies come down on the side of inter-group dating, with respect for heritage and tradition uniformly seen as medieval, obstructionist, anti-romantic or worse -- certainly of concern only for old people. Pleas for Jewish continuity would be seen like Scrooge at Christmas -- though the most eloquent case I ever heard made for not breaking the 5,000 year link was in a thirtysomething episode (though that was about having a brit specifically, not the character's existing intermarriage). Certainly Shakespeare thinks the Montagues and Capulets are as foolish as those enemies on The Original Star Trek whose black/white face skin color was only left/right opposite.
For a media watch blog about images of people of mixed racial backgrounds.
Below is my take on how inter-ethnic/religious/class romance (and friendships or other relationships) has appeared in recent films (primarily fiction), regardless of whether it's a major thrust of the film or not.
Land of Mine (Under sandet) (Note: Unfortunately, we don’t learn much about the brusque, working class Sergeant or his past conflicts with the upper class Captain.) (2/16/2017)
Prospector (seen in On Resistance: International Avant-Garde Films & Videos 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)
Between Fences (Bein gderot/ Entre Les Frontières) (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (2/4/2017)
Dheepan (My edited capsule “Best of 2016” review) (Note: All three of the people in this accidental family – man, woman, and child – are suffering PTSD from their war and refugee experiences.) (12/19/2016)
Fire At Sea (Fuocoammare) (previewed at 2016 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/21/2016)
Demon (Commentary on the Jewish women) (previewed at 2016 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (9/9/2016)
The High Sun (Zvizdan) (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/27/2016)
Spartacus and Cassandra (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (5/9/2016)
Simshar (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (5/9/2016)
Nkosi Coiffure (short) (seen at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/1/2016)
The Meddler (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/19/2016)
Phoenix (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (7/24/2015)
A Borrowed Identity (Dancing Arabs Aka Second Son) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (6/28/2015)
The Green Prince) (My additional Notes.) (previewed at the 2014 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (9/12/2014)
Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (6/8/2014)
Ida (previewed at 2014 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (5/3/2014)
Mars At Sunrise (Note: Artist Hani Zurob does not say on his website that he was arrested, let alone so horribly imprisoned. Rather, he notes that he left for self-imposed exile in France because he felt stifled artistically in Ramallah. So the soldier seen slashing his paintings of nudes I thought at first was from a Palestinian militia. The film’s publicist, enraged at my review, sent me a link to an additional statement by the artist about his experiences ). (2/7/2014)
Generation War (Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (1/14/2014)
The Past (Le passé) (briefly reviewed in best of year- scroll down) (12/23/2013)
The Lesson (previewed at 2013 Other Israel Film Festival) (12/6/2013)
Dove’s Cry (previewed at 2013 Other Israel Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (12/6/2013)
The Garden of Eden (previewed at 2013 Other Israel Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (12/6/2013)
Arabani (previewed at 2013 Other Israel Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (12/4/2013)
Inheritance (previewed at 2013 Other Israel Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (12/4/2013)
Under The Same Sun (previewed at 2013 Other Israel Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (12/4/2013)
The Square (Al Midan) (Note: While Ahmed bears his bloody bandage as a badge of honor, the singer tends to get stress bloody noses just before performing on the impromptu stage. I was able to grab the attention of director Jehane Noujaim for a brief interview at 2013 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) when I told her how much I liked her Rafea: Solar Mama, that I reviewed at 2013 Islam & Women’s Rights at Human Rights Watch Film Fest. Other directors’ earlier short docs on the Egyptian revolution were shown on PBS’s Frontline and Jon Alpert & Matthew O'Neill’s In Tahrir Square: 18 Days of Egypt's Unfinished Revolution, shown on HBO.) (10/26/2013)
Zaytoun (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (10/10/2013) (Check out Judy Gelman Myers’s interview with the director.)
Out In The Dark (Alata) (Dhalam) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (10/10/2013)
Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington (briefly reviewed at 2013 Islam & Women’s Rights at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/22/2013)
In The Shadow Of The Sun (briefly reviewed at 2013 Faith & Filmmaking at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/12/2013)
The Parade (Parada) (seen in 2013 Global Lens series at MoMA) (briefly reviewed at 2013 Faith & Filmmaking at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/12/2013)
The Attack (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (6/25/2013) (Check out Judy Gelman Myers’s interview with the director.)
Shadow Dancer (Note: Additionally relevant to today’s terrorist/anti-terrorist efforts - when the CI can alert the agent to impending attacks that she can barely slip away from being involved in herself, the Brits’ overwhelming rough reaction increases the cell’s paranoia of who could be thwarting their efforts to stymie the ceasefire to punish them. The plot twists are considerably different from the original novel.) (6/14/2013)
Dancing in Jaffa (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (6/9/2013)
Alias Ruby Blades (briefly reviewed in Youth in Rebellion at Tribeca 2013 at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/5/2013)
Deep Powder (briefly reviewed in Youth in Rebellion at Tribeca 2013 at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/5/2013)
Alì Blue Eyes (Alì ha gli occhi azzurri) (briefly reviewed in Youth in Rebellion at Tribeca 2013 at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/5/2013)
State 194 (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (5/16/2013)
Stories We Tell (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (5/16/2013)
Refrain (Rengaine) (briefly reviewed at 2013 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (3/25/2013)
Aliyah (also briefly reviewed at 2013 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (updated 6/20/2013)
How to Re-establish a Vodka Empire (briefly in Reviewed: New York Jewish Film Festival 2013 of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (2/19/2013)
Las Acacias (briefly reviewed in best of year- scroll down) (previewed at 2012 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (1/3/2013)
Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os) (briefly reviewed in best of year- scroll down) (Note: The documentary Blackfish shows that her accident is actually realistic.) (1/3/2013)
This Must Be The Place (Note: The goth rocker is haunted, and emotionally stunted, by death even before his father’s funeral-- the suicides of dedicated fans, like a notorious incident blamed on the band Judas Priest, whose graves he regularly visits. His young friend’s mother (Olwen Fouéré) is almost catatonically waiting for her wayward son as if in deep grief. But as he goes cross country, he listens to the future, through the songs of the young Irish rocker on a demo CD, as written by David Byrne and Will Oldham. His fear of flying is like the prisoner in Martin Brest’s Midnight Run (1988) who ends up also going cross-country, so that he ends up on a cruise ship bonding with housewives over cosmetic tips. The iconic American landscape is given a heightened reality by Sorrentino’s frequent cinematographer Luca Bigazzi. While “Cheyenne”s cousin is portrayed by the Israeli actor Liron Levo to emphasize their Jewishness, Jewish women are only glimpsed at the funeral like servants.) (11/8/2012)
Iceberg Slim: Portrait Of A Pimp (briefly reviewed at 2012 DOC NYC Festival) (11/4/2012)
The Other Son (Le Fils De L’autre) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (10/28/2012)
Somewhere Between (8/24/2012)
Here (on DVD) (8/8/2012)
Habibi (Habibi Rasak Kharban) is a fiction feature by Arab-American filmmaker Susan Youssef that deals with the toll that pressures of manmade boundaries and restrictions of geography, politics, class, and culture impose. Creatively transposing 7th century Sufi poetry by the Qays Mulawwah (a.k.a. Majnun Layla) into contemporary graffiti becomes shocking for the first such film set in Gaza in over 15 years. But this sympathetic Palestinian Romeo and Juliet finally come across as too shallow, let alone confusingly and dithering, naifs before they are predictably mistreated by crude and cruel Israeli soldiers. (previewed at 2012 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/16/2012)
Color Of The Ocean (Die Farbe des Ozeans) (briefly reviewed at 2012 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/16/2012)
Where Do We Go Now? (Et Maintenant On Va Où?) (previewed at 2012 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (5/11/2012)
The Virgin, the Copts and Me (La Vierges, les Coptes et Moi) (briefly reviewed in Documentaries at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: While I was too tired to attend, an evening screening was followed by a panel discussion on what was the most intriguing element in the documentary -- how filmmakers can explore their roots and cultural diaspora identities.) (4/26/2012)
My Father Evgeni (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (1/21/2012)
Joann Sfar Draws From Memory (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (1/21/2012)
London River (Note: To reinforce the points of religious differences, the African immigrant works near a memorial to a Huguenot slaughter in France, and the mother sings hymns at Church of England services, though she admits her late husband was Catholic. The film captures just how scary the London neighborhood is to her-- and how much it’s like here in Queens. There are women in hijabs at the bus stop, a turbaned Sikh kindly shows her how to use her new cell phone, and the policewoman who takes her missing person report is black. In addition to the other NYC parallels, as the parents learn about more about their children, they reminded me of the “Portraits in Grief” of striving New Yorkers profiled after the World Trade Center attacks.) (12/9/2011)
Vasermil (briefly reviewed in The NH Jewish Film Buzz, at page 21) (12/9/2011)
A Dangerous Method (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (previewed at 2011 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (11/23/2011)
77 Steps (previewed at 2011 Other Israel Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (11/21/2011)
Dolphin Boy (previewed at 2011 Other Israel Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (11/21/2011)
The Promise –Part 1 (previewed at 2011 Other Israel Film Festival) (a TV mini-series) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (11/21/2011)
David and Kamal (previewed at 2011 Other Israel Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (11/21/2011)
A Place Of Her Own (previewed at 2011 Other Israel Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (11/21/2011)
Bombay Beach (Note: The African-American teenager’s girlfriend is Latino.) (10/21/2011)
The Loving Story (briefly reviewed in Final Roundup of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/13/2011)
The Arbor (also briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries at2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: The playwright's resentful elder daughter refers to herself as "half-Paki", and points out the racism she faced as a mixed-race child, that the other interviewees ignore.) (4/29/2011)
Incendies (previewed at 2011 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (4/29/2011)
The Kite (Patang) (kudos to celebrating the Uttarayan in Ahmedabad, India) (briefly reviewed at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (I'm not sure which divide was between the flirtatious couple – class, sect or just geography.) (4/22/2011)
Artificial Paradises (briefly reviewed at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (friendship not romance) (4/22/2011)
Love During Wartime (briefly reviewed at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (4/22/2011)
Man Without A Cell Phone (Bidoun Mobile) (briefly reviewed at 2011 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/25/2011)
Belle Épine (briefly reviewed at 2011 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (3/25/2011)
Majority (Çogunluk) (briefly reviewed at 2011 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/25/2011)
The Gift to Stalin (Podarok Stalinu) (3/18/2011) (also briefly reviewed at 2009 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum (1/16/2009) (Note: The diverse exiles are Jewish, Muslim, Polish, Catholic, Muslim, Asiatics, and political revolutionaries of many stripes.)
Vidal Sassoon: The Movie (2/11/2011) (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries: There's No Business Like the Celebrity Business at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: His first claim to fame was a well-publicized shearing of the famous long locks of Nancy Kwan of The World of Suzie Wong (1960).) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (5/7/2010)
Bad Day To Go Fishing (Mal Día Para Pescar) (2/10/2011)
Barney’s Version (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women, in the book and the film.) (12/3/2010)
Leaves of Grass (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (9/17/2010)
White Wedding (9/3/2010)
Spoken Word (7/23/2010) (Note: Nice touch that the club music is by local New Mexico bands, and the closing title song is a new one by L.A.'s Ozomatli.)
Honeymoons (Medeni mesec) (briefly reviewed at 2010 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival) (6/15/2010)
Beyond the Ocean (Les oiseaux du ciel) (briefly reviewed at 2010 New York African Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center and African Film Festival) (4/20/2010)
Burning in the Sun (briefly reviewed at 2010 New York African Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center and African Film Festival) (4/20/2010)
My Perestroika (briefly reviewed at 2010 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/30/2010)
Frontier Blues (briefly reviewed at 2010 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/30/2010)
Harlan: In The Shadow Of Jew Süss (Harlan - Im Schatten Von Jud Süss) (3/5/2010) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.)
For My Father (Sof Shavua B'tel Aviv) (1/29/2010) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.)
Within the Whirlwind (seen at 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (1/17/2010)
Protector (briefly reviewed at 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival, of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum, in The NH Jewish Film Buzz, at page 21) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (updated 12/9/2011)
Ajami (also briefly reviewed at 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (2/3/2010)
Valentina’s Mother (briefly reviewed at 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (not a romantic relationship) (1/16/2010) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.)
Ultimatum (seen at 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (1/15/2010) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.)
Mary and Max (seen at 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (1/15/2010)
Jaffa (briefly reviewed at 2009 Other Israel Film Festival in 2008 in New York) (11/14/2009) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.)
The Little Traitor (OK, so not a romance, a father-substitute and son relationship) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (11/7/2009)
Skin (10/30/2009) (Notes: A key scene lifts this out of Oprah/Lifetime blandness: When she boldly challenges bulldozers attacking their home, her man angrily sneers "You still think you're white!" His dignity and self-respect as a husband and father are irreparably damaged, even as she struggles to legalize their union. The lively score by Hélène Muddiman beautifully incorporates African instruments and vocals. Too bad it's a small film so the songs “Innocent Child” and “Let Freedom Reign” submitted to qualify for an Oscar won't get noticed by the nominators.)
Tickling Leo (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (See Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis for background clarification.) (8/24/2009)
Death In Love (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (7/17/2009)
Under The Bombs (Sous les bombes) (5/22/2009)
Here and There (Tamo i ovde) (briefly reviewed in Part 3 Family Ties Around The World at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/9/2009)
Queen To Play (Joueuse) (briefly reviewed in Part 3 Family Ties Around The World at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/9/2009)
Adoration (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (5/8/2009)
A Matter of Size (Sipur Gadol) (briefly reviewed in Part 1 Recommendations at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/26/2009)
Amreeka (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)
Autumn (Sonbahar) (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)
35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums) (briefly reviewed at 2009 Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2009 of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (3/9/2009)
Eden Is West (Eden à l’ouest) (briefly reviewed at 2009 Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2009 of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (3/9/2009)
The Secret of the Grain (La graine et le mulet) (kudos to actors Habib Boufares and Hafsia Herzi, and writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche) (scroll down for my capsule review) (previewed at Tribeca Film Festival) (1/10/2009)
The World Unseen (11/7/2008)
Rachel Getting Married (10/3/2008)
A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers (9/19/2008)
Forgiveness (Mechilot) (9/12/2008)
Moving Midway (previewed at New Directors/New Films at Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (9/12/2008)
Bottle Shock (8/9/2008) (Notes: It would have made more sense within the overall theme of the spread of wine-growing connoisseurship to let Rachael Taylor as the intern vintner keep her native Aussie accent, as such apprentices did work in California before branching out Down Under. Compared to the full account by the Time reporter who broke the story of the tasting heard round the world, the salt-of-the-earth vintner is completely fictional, though there were actually more colorful, multi-ethnic characters than in the film who it would have been more fun to include over the made-up unresolved romantic triangle.)
The Memory Thief (5/9/2008) (emendations coming after 11/9/2008) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman)
The Wackness (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (7/3/2008)
Surfwise (5/9/2008) (emendations coming after 11/9/2008) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)
Fugitive Pieces (5/2/2008) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (emendations coming after 11/2/2008)
Dark Matter (4/11/2008) (emendations coming after 10/11/2008) (previewed at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 2008 Film Comment Selects)
The Year My Parents Went On Vacation (O Ano em Que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias) (2/15/2008) (emendations coming after 8/15/2008) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)
Live And Become (Va, Vis Et Deviens) (Warning: white on white subtitles!) (View it with its non-fiction counterpart Black On White: The Idan Raichel Project, seen at the 2008 NY Sephardic Jewish Film Festival.) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (2/1/2008)
The Witnesses (Les Témoins) (2/1/2008)
The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret) (12/7/2007) (emendations coming after 6/7/2008)
Ira & Abby (9/14/2007) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman)
The Bubble (Ha- Buah) (9/10/2007) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman)
Flying: Confessions Of A Free Woman (7/4/2007) (emendations coming after 1/4/2008) (but a TV mini-series, not a movie)
Black Book (Zwartboek) (4/4/2007) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman)
Mendy: A Question of Faith (DVD review – scroll down) (3/13/2007) (emendations coming after 9/13/2007) )
Quinceañera (DVD review – scroll down) (1/8/2007)
Family Law (Derecho de familia) (12/8/2006) (emendations coming after 5/8/2007)
Wondrous Oblivion (11/2/2006) (emendations coming here after 4/2/2007)
Fratricide (Brudermord) (8/23/2006) (emendations coming here after 2/23/2007)
Only Human (Seres queridos) is a broadly comic Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for Shabbat. Even with some of the same silly slapstick as the parallel over-the-top satires Go for Zucker! (Alles auf Zucker!) and When Do We Eat?, it is both intelligent and funny.
Amidst the nonsense that happens when the prodigal daughter returns from a job in Spain to her Argentinian Jewish family with an older academic fiancé who happens to be almost as perfect a Palestinian as Sidney Poitier was a Negro, there are surprising moments of poignancy and truth.
The first refreshing element is that this secular, assimilated family who has changed their last name does not look or act like Jewish stereotypes - they don't seem any crazier than any other family. They are not rich (the father got demoted at his salesman job), though the film does gently mock the daughter's pretentious intellectual TV program like those we've seen in several French films lately. Her fierce sibling rivalry with her sexy single mother, belly-dancing sister has spark. The blind grandfather has a complicated Holocaust and Zionist past that contradicts stereotypes of Argentina as a Nazi haven, though it recalls the family in Lost Embrace (El Abrazo partido). The brother's effort to become Orthodox has become a common comic foil in films lately, though his subversive effort to teach his niece Hebrew is quite droll.
The second surprise is that heavy philosophical discussions are made both effectively personal and very funny. including a debate about atheism vs. fundamentalism and Spain's role vis a vis the Inquisition and Muslim Moors. The misunderstandings about his Israeli passport are geo-politically amusing, including his travel travails. When told his mother is from Nablus, her confused mother is surprised: "There must not be many Jews in Nablus." Even though we don't learn too much about him (other than that Guillermo Toledo of Crimen ferpecto is one sexy dancer), he becomes increasingly more human as he's caught in awkward situations during the course of the film, culminating in a hilarious, no holds barred "I'm not a racist!" lovers' quarrel about religion, lifestyle, history and politics.
The slapstick is mostly funny, particularly a traveling frozen and defrosted chicken soup. Perhaps lost in translation is a too long side odyssey the dazed father takes through the city streets, let alone a silly duck.
The score and klezmerish and Middle Eastern musical selections are marvelous, though used a bit too much to emphasize the slapstick, including "Havah Nagilah" too heavy-handedly in one scene.
The setting is mostly limited to one apartment, with every inch used very effectively.
The subtitles are always legible, though the print released in the U.S. uses British spellings and quizzical slang, that may have something to do with the four country funding from Britain, Spain, Portugal and Argentina. As is usually frustrating with subtitled comedies, dialogues are put on screen before the punch line is spoken out loud. (7/12/2006) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)
Beyond Honor takes serious issues of the treatment of women and didactically reduces them to the stereotyped treatment of an R-rated Reefer Madness-type after-school special.
From the heavy-handed symbolic opening scene of an innocent little girl observing the ritual slaughter of a goat, debut writer/director Varun Khanna draws all his immigrant characters in the most simplistic outlines. Over the past few years there have been many excellent films about the Middle-Eastern/South Asian-immigrant experience in the U.S., including issues for women, so there is no need to look here as a representative voice.
While the central character of the striving medical student "Sahira" is dynamically brought to life by Mirelly Taylor, the rest of the acting seems to be done by stick figures. Wadie Andrawis's father loses any point of demonstrating issues of suppression of women in Arab immigrant communities to seeming to be at the very least a universal domestic abuser of his wife and children to probably violently mentally deranged. Even the traditionally religious men in border-line agit prop Middle Eastern films as The Circle (Dayereh), Kadosh and Osama weren't presented so cartoonishly evil. By the end of the film the dialog pretty much consists of shouted obscenities.
Though the same day I happened to see this film in a theater, E.R. broadcast a very similar story line with a similarly obsessed revengefully religious brother driven partly by post-9/11 pressures and a blond boyfriend, that doesn't make this character any more human here, as he was equally poorly written, with an added bizarre twist of repressed sexuality spilling out into in ever more abusive ways.
The traditional women are presented as if they are in the Ku Klux Klan in their eyes-only visible chadors or burkhas, or whatever they are called, when it makes no sense that they wouldn't take them off among family members.
The climatically violent scene is presented like a slo-mo Perils of Pauline silent film confrontation.
It was manipulative to stick on the end of the film facts and links about female genital mutilation as this film does a poor job of representing such a serious issue. A much more effective and dramatic treatment about honor killings was a short I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival In The Morning, directed by Danielle Lurie, which is evidently being used by non-profit organizations who are more effectively fighting such horrors than these cardboard caricatures can accomplish. (3/24/2006)
Ask the Dust has excellent elements that almost come together as a whole.
Like End of the Affair and The White Countess, it surrounds a fraught love affair with exquisite looking period recreation that almost sucks the life out of it. (As with those films, the senior citizens at my matinee really enjoyed the period aspect.) Set in a sepia-tinged Depression-era Los Angeles of polluted palm trees, it is populated equally by youthful blond California girls and boys and old people at the end of the continent and their lines, as symbolized by Donald Sutherland's begging boarding house neighbor, like a ghost from his role in The Day of the Locust.
What saves the film is the frank dialog and odd sparks between Colin Farrell, as repressed Italian-American writer from Colorado, novelist John Fante's alter ego with the even more ethnically redolent name of "Arturo Bandini", and Salma Hayak as a non-stereotyped Mexican spitfire "Camilla Lopez". Their repartee about their biases is raw and fresh. Significantly, they are not the usual naive teen lovers, but adults with mileage who are striving to change the trajectory of their lives. In this discrimination-filled, pre-celebration of the melting pot/rainbow environment (heavy-handedly demonstrated such as by their viewing Ruby Keeler's famous line from Dames "I'm free, white, and 21."), both are trying to make it in a specific image of the American Dream, a non-ethnic one, though we hear very little about their own sense of their ethnic identity. She is even dating a nasty guy named White in the vain hope of obtaining a green card and citizenship.
Hayak's character is the easier to understand, as we see her exuberate in vibrant blue moonlight when she feels free with him, especially in vivid ocean scenes (she is absolutely stunning swimming naked), and then in bright light at a seashore idyll. This gorgeous scene gives From Here to Eternity a run for its money as the sexiest crashing of waves coupling in the movies. Though after all her sexually aggressive seduction efforts, their lovemaking is lit beautifully in the dark but conventionally choreographed as I expected her to demand more equality in bed. But then she's already started coughing with Movie Star Disease, even if it's explained more in the plot than usual.
Even with his constant florid more than bordering on pretentious narration, sometimes in an exaggerated lower register, of his writing efforts (with the usual scenes of paper being ripped out a manual typewriter as he receives encouragement from H. L. Mencken) that doesn't really thematically integrate into the film until the end, it is harder to understand why it takes so long to get his uptight clothes off despite many importunings. There is an unusually sweet flirtation over literacy, but it seemed more like condescension on his part, especially to help her get citizenship, than sharing with her his love of words. The non-narrated scenes are a relief and are beautiful to look at, as the cinematography of Caleb Deschanel (dad of actresses Zoey and Emily) is consistently lovely.
But then Farrell is surrounded by eccentric characters who are all hiding emotional or physical scars until he can face up to his own to find his real writer's voice. Idina Menzel's "Vera Rifkin" is a well-educated Jewish housekeeper whose California dreams (or borderline crazed fantasies) are for some reason now focused on being a writer's muse.
Surprisingly, there is very little period music, maybe for budget reasons. A prominent and excellent selection is Artie Shaw's version of Gloomy Sunday (Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod) which has its own legend of love and death. The score is sometimes intrusive and not as evocative of the clashing ethnic traditions as it could have been. (3/20/2006) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman)
Little Fish plunges us into the middle of a series of complicated relationships strained by drug addiction.
The debut feature film script by Jacqueline Perske respects the intelligence of the characters and the audience by not slowing down for explication, but lets the past that binds each interconnected family gradually be revealed through their edgy interactions. The popular circular Amores Perros style of storytelling isn't just a gimmick for showing us how different people tragically end up at the same place at the same time, but to peel back layers of assumptions and revelations about each character. Gradually we realize that every character is lying.
The excellent cast communicates a weary, lived in feeling of people attracted to each other by different kinds of love and needs. We haven't seen Cate Blanchett this down home grungy since maybe the less effective The Gift as a recovering addict and lover. She has terrific chemistry with Dustin Nguyen as a quite irresistibly leonine "Jonny". Both Hugo Weaving and Sam Neill are almost unrecognizable surprises in very masculine roles where they use their physicality in ways they don't usually demonstrate in films.
Director Rowan Woods has a few stylistic quirks, particularly whooshing close-ups. There is a continuing visual theme of water - from swimming pools to the ocean to showers and more-- that seems more sodden than symbolic of Sydney's beach culture, particularly in a rather uncomfortable looking love scene that seems more desperate than erotic.
The locations and ensemble seem to well capture multi-ethnic contemporary Sydney and the tensions and biases between ethnic groups, particularly a working class that feels left behind compared to Asian immigrants with more international experiences and ties, here Viet Namese.
The continuing struggle of recovering from addiction and its echoing impact on family, particularly parents, and friends is shown very effectively that we haven't seen in many films, as in Down to the Bone or Requiem for a Dream.
The almost continuous score is one of Nathan Larson's finest, again making use of ethereal vocalizations by his wife Nina Persson. Singer Bic Runga has a bit out of this world cameo as a nightclub singer.
For fans of the late Farscape which filmed Down Under and director Woods shot some episodes, there are several visual references to it and the characters always seem to be watching it on TV. (3/15/2006)
Debut writer/director Debra Kirschner manages to steer clear of the clichés she is driving towards in The Tollbooth to create an endearing film.
The speed trap she has set up is the oft-told tale of the college senior graduating into Manhattan from bus and tunnel outskirts (hence the title, reinforced with many shots of bridges) for romance and to make it as an artist. But rather than another update of La Boheme, we see a more realistic portrait of a young woman with close ties to her loving, religious Jewish family, and struggling with her feminism and day jobs to balance her muse, ambition and love life.
One of its charms is its fond understanding that she is young and immature, and that even though her parents have to bend, she also doesn't have all the right answers. No one here is an overnight success, let alone sure of themselves. And the apartments are believably small (so I was concerned they were breathing in all that paint in close quarters).
Marla Sokoloff is adorable and heart-tugging as the central "Sarabeth Cohen" in a much more substantive role than we've seen her in television shows where she's been able to shine in only small but memorable parts.
She has a wonderful rapport with a winning Rob McElhenney, who reins in the goofiness exhibited in his sit com It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, for a whole lot of charm and gentile boyfriend credibility as engineer "Simon Stanton". There's a wonderful scene where we can tell he's in the room just from an extended focus on her face. Unfortunately, his Pennsylvania relatives are portrayed a bit unfairly as stereotype little boxes suburbanites with more than a little anti-Semitism. There is a nice, sensitive twist in one scene as "Sarabeth" tries to fit in with them.
The intense central family is very warmly and for the most part realistically portrayed, as we see them through a year of Jewish holidays; the family is comfortably non-Orthodox observant Jewish and their observances are portrayed accurately. Though Tovah Feldshuh's mother is a broad portrayal and seems more like a grandmother than mother, it sets the stage for how the adult sisters fall into their childhood relationships, repeating Talmudic-like discussions and arguments when they are home - "the smart one" med student (Liz Stauber), the pregnant, nurturing, eager to please middle child (Idina Menzel), and the baby creative girl.
While there's always universality to leaving the nest, these folks and some of their rhetorical arguments seem a bit out-dated, more like boomers, as if some contemporary references are thrown in for hasty contemporaneity. At one point "Sarabeth"s accused of being "too '90's," but she really sounds more '70's as she criticizes her mother for staying at home raising kids. These twentysomethings don't even seem to e-mail, listen to Ipods, or use cell phones.
I'm not sure the chronology works out about the relatives she's named for who died in the Holocaust, but the stories she has grown up with about them through her immigrant father (a charming Ronald Guttman who can quote Jewish sages such as Kafka or Hillel or Woody Allen as needed) and her ongoing connection to them is very moving, especially --very unusually for films--as she learns to embrace her heritage rather than reject it as she works hard to find her own artistic voice and style. Smoothly incorporated into the story, the scenes with NYC's gay synagogue are very contemporary and a nice counterpoint to most films by showing the potential for progressive, inclusionary Judaism as an alternative.
For a small indie film without a budget for pop tunes, the music by David Shire is lovely.
Even as we start to tear up a bit at her unpredictable choices, we root for Sokoloff's "Sarabeth". (2/23/2006)
Christmas in the Clouds is a charming romantic, Native American take on Fawlty Towers.
Set at a Utah resort that's Indian tribal owned and operated (as was the production of the film), with a majority Indian cast, the plot entanglements and eventual resolution in debut writer/director Kate Montgomery's film are pretty obvious from the first ten minutes, but how the colorful characters get there is fun.
The opening voice over narration is a bit awkward in setting up the situation for the mistaken identities, but the introduction of each eccentric character is quite entertaining. While the plot contrivance in romantic travails probably goes back further than Shakespeare, the dialogue that keeps the mistakes going in double entendres is amusing (including her as a NY Mohawk "passing" as NY Italian by using her father's last name).
Amidst the funny running joke about romance novels' depiction of a "savage" lover, Timothy Vahle as "Ray Clouds on Fire" and Mariana Tosca as "Tina Little Hawk" are staggeringly gorgeous, but they each bring a wariness and neediness to their characters that has you rooting for them more than for the vicarious thrill of watching beautiful people kiss on screen. We rarely see in films educated off-the-rez professionals like them back home, having returned to their families for emotional personal reasons (it's inferred that his ex was non-Indian). The parent/child relationships throughout are much warmer than any we've seen before in the few Indian films.
There are jokes throughout on Indian stereotypes in image and language, and that's the term the characters use, not Native American. Here the alcoholic, alienated father is the white guy, M. Emmet Walsh, who is both comic and touching. But none of the whites are played for stereotypes (including a cute flirtation between a British guest and "Ray"s father, played by a solid Sam Vlahos). In another reverse, this may be Wes Studi's only comic performance, in a cameo as a guest bingo caller. Singer Rita Coolidge of the distinctive husky voice also has a brief cameo as "Tina"s mother. Graham Greene is very funny as a vegetarian chef with serious issues about his menu.
There is some contemporary Native American music on the soundtrack and lovely performances of translated Christmas carols.
The tiny budget is obvious with some continuity errors and background shots with inconsistent snow/no snow, but the Utah scenery is lovely, and this is much more about the people up front than the details in the background.
What a shame that I was the only one in the theater in NYC, when a broad stereotyped ethnic romantic comedy like Big Fat Greek Wedding was a hit. While I would enjoy following these characters in a continued life in a sit com, this sweet little film could have an extended life as a holiday staple on cable, like on the Hallmark Channel. (2/22/2006)
The New World is a sophisticated and breathtaking look at a pivotal moment in history -- the meeting of English colonists with the native peoples of North America.
Writer/director Terrence Malick tells a powerful story of mythic proportions through flesh-and-blood individuals. It is a doomed story of sights and sounds, sharp contrasts, passions and miscommunication. The changes wrought are powerfully and gradually shown, with only minimal dialog, through the three-part story of the curiosity, bravery and adaptability of the loves of an extraordinary young woman.
Where Thin Red Line looked at the relationship between war and the environment, here we see the relationship between religion and the environment. This is a clash of gods, those communing with Mother Earth vs. those proclaiming service to Jesus Christ. This a metaphorical retelling of Adam and Eve thrown out of Eden -- so this may be the first time it is appropriate in a movie review to use the word prelapsarian.
Colin Farrell is surprisingly effective in the pivotal, and primarily emotive role of the conflicted, complicated John Smith. He's not just the preternatural rebel, not fitting in anywhere, but really uses his visceral masculinity as if Smith is affection-tropic. He scruffily comes off the water (and water is a recurring image throughout the film) to the shores of North America in chains and is only saved from hanging for mutiny because his military skills are deemed essential by expedition leader Christopher Plummer. Plummer's orders all the trees in the area be cut down to build fortifications, initiating their environmental desecration.
Plummer sends Farrell off into the wilderness for trade and goes back to England for supplies (I've read that his voice-over pontifications of Manifest Destiny were added in the revised version). What follows does go on a bit long with a lot of imitation of Dances with Wolves as Smith gradually finds his soul with the natives (and his tattooed torso fits right in with their colorful body displays) and most of all falls in love with the chief's daughter (who we never hear called Pocahontas). We see their peaceful domestication of the environment with crops, fishing, families, homes, governing council -- though they do have weapons so it's not a pacifist idyll (some of the tribal issues are a bit hard to follow, and I hadn't realized that the briefly seen Irene Bedard as shaman is her mother). And he again gets saved from execution, this time, legendarily, by her and is in effect reborn. This beautiful time "in the forest," as he keeps referring to it, seems so unreal to him that in his voice-over narration of this thoughts he repeats "I thought it was a dream."
This Edenic beauty then makes his return to Jamestown that much more shocking as we see a gruesome Lord of the Flies society has erupted in his absence like an environmental original sin -- they have stripped the sea of fish and the land in a mad search for the gold of the Indies instead of planting and tending crops. They are driven mad with religious fanaticism and internecine, murderous arguments and cruel neglect even of children. Here we see a few glimpses of character actors whose haggard roles probably got substantially cut as happened in Red Line -- Noah Taylor, Ben Mendelsohn, John Savage, Kirk Acevedo, Ben Chaplin- but who are scarily effective in showing a miniature society gone to hell.
Smith makes the fateful decision to side with his white brethren who are in such desperate, foolish need, even when they viciously reject his help and advice. The significance may be as he keeps urging his native love "don't trust me" that he becomes a Cassandra-like figure, seeing the future ruin of the natives and incapable of preventing it, as he lets the Chief think the colonists will leave.
She remains tragically idealistic and hopeful, to the point of being rejected by her father for helping the colonists. There is a confusing part two of their love story that duplicates the images of being free to be together in the wilderness, but not in either of their's civilization. He protests to her: "Where would we live? In a tree top? In a hole in the ground?" He rejects that solution, as well as the moral compromise of using her as a hostage when relations between the natives and settler deteriorate from first random then wholesale violence, and she never understands that rejection of her.
Her character matures; Farrell's does not, preferring her innocent and untouched by progress. He uses personal ambition, and even the religious strictures of Leviticus, as an excuse, leading eventually to the freighted last line of their meeting, and one of the few lines of dialogue in the film: "Did you find your Indies, John?" "I think I went past it."
Q'Orianka Kilcher makes this all work in a way I simply would not have thought possible in someone so young, let alone in her debut. She is not only emotionally expressive, has magical physical chemistry with the virtually non-verbal Farrell and is explosive in grief and longing, but is also incredibly physically active and reactive as she changes from boundless barefoot freedom to the cautious, uncomfortable confinement of corset and boots, and eventually conversion through baptism under a stream of water to emerge as "Rebecca". Oh, and she's beautiful.
While I have now seen the film twice to try to take in all of the characters' confusing trajectories, it was both times, unfortunately, only Malick's second, shorter version, which I've read cut the development of John Rolfe's (Christian Bale) somewhat patronizing, but ultimately loving, relationship in civilization with her ("You don't really know what marriage means, do you? All she asks is "Are you kind?"). I would have liked to have seen more of that development of their courtship within the manipulated agricultural environment and could have done without the repeat of her and Smith's sensual forest frolics. Where Smith guiltily thinks "I am not the man you think I am," she moves on to Rolfe: "You are the man I think you are." There must be some irony that the cash crop the natives teach the colonists is tobacco growing, that will kill them all eventually anyway.
The closing visit to London is a striking contrast. The marvels of a
busy city and the pomp of the Royal Court are not overwhelming but
vignettes, like her sympathizing with a caged animal. What is creatively striking and deserving of the extended screen time is seeing "Rebecca", and another representative of the natives Wes Studi, strolling in formal and topiary gardens. This civilization's controlling mastery over nature is stultifyingly complete. And yet the resourceful young woman manages to adapt and still find life, cartwheeling through the mowed grass, climbing a tree, and playing with a child. At least briefly finding happiness.
While Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is gorgeous, I'm surprised that the sound design and editing haven't gotten more acclaim as the silences, natural sounds and man-made interruptions are used in tandem. James Horner's swelling score is his best ever, including bits from Wagner to native instrumentation and vocalization. But the music is carefully used for cultural emphasis around the important ambient sounds, which we hear from the opening credits through to the very end of the closing credits. It is worth staying through to hear the full effect. (2/21/2006)
Something New is a charming chick flick crossed with the BUPpie (Black Urban Professional) genre, like The Best Man and The Woodsman.
While those guy films featured Sanaa Lathan, she really gets to shine here, and her chemistry with the actresses playing her three girlfriends is wonderful. Unusual for a chick flick, the girlfriends all have believable, non-media jobs given their post-graduate degreed education and competence, including lawyer and pediatrician, and are at age-appropriate, mid-'30's points in their ambitious careers. I've never watched UPN-type sit coms like Girlfriends to know if the portrayal of their entertaining interchanges, amidst a whirling camera, is unusual, particularly about the woes of dating, but they do sound like a racially charged take on Sex and the City. I think it is probably unusual that we get to see Lathan's "Kenya McQueen" substantively at work, dealing with subtle issues of racism and sexism (including much discussion of "the black tax"). We absolutely believe she is a workaholic who has just made her first big investment, in a bare house.
But key is that Lathan and Simon Baker are wonderful together and that the stops and starts, hots and cools of their relationship are believable. I find it amusing that non-TV watching movie critics refer much to his appearance in L.A. Confidential as that was barely a cameo, while he registered as a hunk in several seasons of The Guardian and a hero in Land of the Dead. But this is the first we've seen him as all get out romantic and the camera loves his rugged, scruffy look, as he's an outdoorsy landscaper.
Their courting and post-coital scenes are wonderfully sweet, the best such sensual scenes since Bull Durham. I particularly liked the intimate, in tight close-ups, curiosity of their inter-racial discussions (though we only learn about her Afro-centric academic family and not his ethnically neutral one), leading to him committing what Oprah says is the number one no-no: never ask an African-American woman about her hair. At least we learn about his business background and also got one interchange where he seemed like a normal guy and not just too world-music listening, community garden volunteering, etc. good to be true.
I was glad that her father finally had a speech about historic diversity, sounding like Henry Louis Gates in the PBS series African-American Lives, because even though debut director Sanaa Hamri and scripter Kriss Turner developed this with Lathan in mind, according to her interviews, she seems as black as bi-racial Halle Berry (as opposed to her darker-skinned friends), as I wondered why her hair au natural wasn't even curlier. The film goes way out of its way to be fair to African-American men, including a too long stand-up comic routine. It's not easy finding a reason for a woman not to hook up with Blair Underwood.
I'll have to trust that the representations of African-American cotillion culture, including snappy choreography, were correct, because the film was incorrect in having a wedding of, ironically, their mutual friend in a synagogue, as they are not used for such personal events. I hope it wasn't for the sake of a joke by ladies in scanty summer dresses about being in a rabbi's office.
The cinematography has harsh contrasts in the California sun, which Baker has said in interviews was due to the differences between skin color.(2/20/2006) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman)
Simon Baker explained the skin color and lighting issues in the film in an online interview.
"[W]hat I had to do was get really tan, which is hilarious, and it was for a completely technical reason. We had hair and makeup tests, right? And I'm a white guy. In a movie with all black people, when you use a camera, they're going to expose to all the black people. Black absorbs light, white reflects light. So if they expose the film to Sanaa [Lathan] and we're in the frame together, they expose it to her, her skin's darker than mine.
I literally look like a flashlight going off. So that we could both hold the frame and I wasn't over-exposed and just burning like sort of a ghost, they had to darken me up.
They sent me to the tanning booth and then we did another camera test - and I was still too white. Beverly, my makeup artist, got this stuff called Jan Tanna and she would put it on me and I looked, literally, I looked like George Hamilton in real life. But then on camera, because everything is so pushed a couple of stops, it looked fine. But people would come to visit me at the set and they'd be like, 'My god, man, what's going on?'"
Go for Zucker! (Alles auf Zucker!) is a broad, comic take on East vs. West reconciliation issues in Germany today that was done better in Goodbye, Lenin!.
Co-writer/director Dani Levy goes further in making German audiences comfortable to laugh at their 20th century history by somewhat ridiculously adding in the Jewish issue, both past and contemporary. He makes it safe to joke about the Holocaust and its aftermath.
There have been countless comedies through the decades that have scheming beneficiaries pretend something or other in order to claim an inheritance (marriage, children, etc. etc.). Here, the premise is Jewish brothers and their families separated by the construction of the Berlin Wall need to reconcile and be observant Jews. But the joke, as they accuse each other, is that one grew up with the religious attitudes of Stalin and the other like the Ayatollah.
This is first played for very broad laughs, as the ex-Communist brother's estranged Aryan wife frantically tries to learn Jewish household rules through a kind of "Kosher for Dummies" book, while he's off gambling. Similarly, the Orthodox Jewish family displays every stiff visual stereotype of piety known to film, from the long beards to the triple chins on the wife.
The actors playing the older generation who lived through Germany's traumas are very world-weary effective. There's a lot of running around like a French parlor comedy. Their adult kids are mostly silly and too slapsticky sexually confused. Maybe it's a German comic thing that the men are all passive dolts, the women are sexually aggressive and their relationships make no sense.
The best parts of the film are when the brother from the East is comically doing his funny grifter thing to get into a pool tournament and, at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, when the brothers actually start to communicate about how history tore up their family. This makes history personal and poignant amidst the laughs. Everyone turns out to have faults and secrets, including the rabbi who is supposed to moderate. Some of the Frankfurt vs. Berlin jokes probably have more meaning to the German audience.
For all the film's silliness and stereotypes, it does end up endearing.
The subtitling is very difficult for an American audience. The opening credits are very funny, with the Eastern brother talking to and over the camera (a technique that continues throughout the swooping camera work). However, the subtitles are mixed in with the credits and are impossible to read. The subtitlers just assumed that any English speakers coming to see the film would understand Yiddish, as all the Yiddish expressions by the Western brother and his family are just transliterated as Yiddish and are not translated, though some words are not that widely part of American conversation and could be a problem for some viewers. (2/15/2006)
La Petite Jerusalem (Little Jerusalem) is a French intellectual exercise that manages to let feelings come through. Unlike Eric Rohmer's static arguments about mind vs. desire, as between two middle-aged guys in Claire's Knee, here the clash of philosophies is demonstrated through a year in the intimate daily lives of two Orthodox Jewish sisters.
While the intellectual discussions are very didactically presented through these two incredibly naive, but very intelligent, women, the very frank portrait of life in an intensely religious North African immigrant community, which debut writer/director Karin Albou comes from, is moving.
The older sister, Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein), represents the unquestioning rule follower of formal religion. She's married with four children, but has evidently never experienced nor knows anything about orgasms and she seems to have had no formal Jewish education as she just parrots lines about faith in all powerful Hashem and knows the rules of kashruth and going to the mikveh for the monthly cleansing ritual (which we see full frontally), but not much else. She is atypically isolated from the usually close women in her community who could provide her information and support. Hers seems a peasant Judaism.
The rebellious younger sister, Laura (a very appealing Fanny Valette), is some sort of nonmatriculated philosophy student, but is also teaching and working as a cleaner. She follows to the letter first one than another secular philosophers' dictates, including celibacy, as rigidly as her brother-in-law head-of-the-household is apparently following the daily prayers, weekly Shabbat and seasonal rules of Judaism. Her intellectual rigidity leads her to reject the handsome Jewish medical student who comes to her for philosophical tutoring because he is too interested in the romantics and because her mother encourages the relationship with superstitious charms. The widowed mother's faith in magic is posited as a third way, along with the warm love of her children that is challenged but never wavers.
Both sisters are faced with a heart breaking crisis of romantic passion in their lives that their philosophies don't seem to be able to reconcile. (Sorry, but it is beyond ludicrous that every woman in the household is mystified that the younger feels a certain stirring when a young handsome, dark-skinned Arab looks at her, and it's too bad that we learn so little about him except that he too is an intellectual who is torn about being a rebel within his family and culture.) But I saw that each just matured and learned that their views were immaturely narrow and ill-informed. They hadn't realized that for thousands of years folks have been reconciling human nature with intellect and finding a way to live with both, as gently pointed out by their mentors. Each learns to bend, while finding strength in their individual beliefs in unpredictable ways.
The best part of the film is the realistic depiction of celebration of the Jewish holidays amidst multicultural life within the crowded les banlieues surrounding Paris (very comparable to neighborhoods in Brooklyn NYC) where we also saw romantic tensions in Lila Says (Lila dit ça) and Games of Love and Chance (L'Esquive). The film opens with tashlich, the symbolic discarding of sins for the new year, moves on to the celebration of the Torah in Simhat Torah and on to Purim. If this was an American family we'd see a seder and menorah lighting, but here Passover and Hanukkah are represented simply as special synagogue services. Here we also see the anti-Semitic violence that has threatened French Jews since the Intifada spilled over into Europe, which I haven't seen in films before. It is very ironic that this Tunisian Jewish family is as much refugees from North Africa as their Muslim Algerian neighbors who reject them. (2/14/2006)
The Family Stone has some original dialog and flair with a mostly sprightly ensemble in a promising set piece of bringing the significant other home for the holidays, which movies, wrongly, usually think is only rife with potential when there are ethnic or racial differences.
Writer/director Thomas Bezucha has created an intact New England counterpart to the liberal, intellectual, bon mots flame-throwing family in The Squid and the Whale.
The cast enjoys playing against type. The black sheep of this family is the tie-wearing Wall Street-type, compared to the others' employment in various artsy or nonprofit or educational activities. Tightly bunned Sarah Jessica Parker is the opposite of her pixies in "Honeymoon in Vegas and L.A. Story, though we just know she's going to get drunk at some point. Diane Keaton is not "Annie Hall," but an Earth Mother Matriarch. The incandescent Rachel McAdams is no ingénue as in The Notebook and Slings and Arrows but a cynical, intellectual snob take on her Mean Girls. Craig T. Nelson is, as usual, an ineffectual father who, of course, finally bestirs himself, but has no Coach-bluster. Paul Schneider has a comparably sized role as in Elizabethtown and adds charming warmth to the proceedings.
The weakest part of the ensemble, as scripted, is the too perfect gay couple, each of whom is almost completely devoid of any personality, quirks or individuality compared to the rest of the eccentrics in the family. As the deaf partner, Gallaudet graduate Tyrone Giordano played a similarly angelic brother in A Lot Like Love. No way did I believe the African-American's partner's claim that the family had initially razzed him, as he's even more blandly proper than Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner.
I'm not sure why the equally bland pregnant sister is so mesmerized by gay icon Judy Garland mournfully singing "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" from Meet Me in St. Louis in the extended excerpt we see her watching on the TV. Unless this has something to do with the rather odd and strained family conversation around the dinner table of the straight sons joshing that mom tried to turn them gay, which turns into the film's dramatic turning point.
This churns up too schematic results, though Claire Danes does have nice chemistry with Dermot Mulroney. The film takes a somewhat typical sad, revelatory turn, but handles it in a less saccharine way than most such films (and giving many in the audience a good tip for future family gifts).
The set and production design were excellent at capturing the family's background, as well as the use of the Connecticut and New Jersey locations.
The score is a mostly uncreative pastiche of Christmas songs, though a passage from The Nutcracker is used amusingly to emphasize the physical parlor comedy routines. (1/2/2006)
Transamerica follows the trajectory of the long tradition of road movies with opposites paired up on a voyage of self-discovery, with stops along the way to their pasts.
The gimmick here recalls Broken Flowers's trip when another biological father discovers a son. Here, it's not just that the person who produced the sperm is on the verge of transsexual completion that helps the film rise above various genre clichés (there was more than passing similarity to scenes from such films as The Sure Thing, Smoke Signals, and Midnight Run in debut writer/director Duncan Tucker's script, plus unfortunate throwback images of the south from Deliverance and way over-the-top dysfunctional families, and some Native American commentary on transsexuals coinciding with a convenient appearance by the ever estimable Graham Greene.)
As graphically embodied in two terrific performances, "Bree" (Felicity Huffman as née "Stanley") and the new-found son "Toby" have opposite relations to their bodies. Having felt like a stealth woman trapped in a man's body, "Bree" is naive to the pleasures of the flesh and is used to having to be wrapped up tight in her struggle to control normality that has impeded every part of her life.
"Toby" is an abused gay hustler who probably for good reason and profit assumes that people of either gender or those in-between are responding to him physically (and Kevin Zegers is such an unfettered, tousled Adonis that he is even more sensual than Joseph Gordon-Levitt's somewhat similar screwed-up kid in Mysterious Skin).
Both have had only negative experiences with family, as we see along the way, and both have a lot to learn about the parent/child relationship and honesty.
While it makes it too easy for the audience's perception to have the transsexual be played by an actress (like Vanessa Redgrave as Renee Richards or Olympia Dukakis in Tales of the City or Famke Janssen on Nip/Tuck, Lisa Edelstein Ally McBeal vs. Terence Stamp in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) with only two momentary reversion lapses to masculine mannerisms played for laughs and revelation, at least for more realism "Bree" is not in the arts or some high-powered white-collar job.
There were a lot of chuckles throughout the film, but I was surprised that not all of the folks at the crowded opening weekend matinee of a very mixed gay and straight audience joined in. (Though the two guys next to me who had been discussing Lord of the Rings just before the film started were uproarious at "Toby"s analysis of the gay sub-text in that story.) It was a cheap shot for easy laughs to have "Bree" be half-Jewish.
While I thought it was for symbolism that the two have a key stop-over in Phoenix, it turns out that was filmed at the director's parents' house in Arizona. I presume the kid's concluding black cowboy hat and blond hair is a bit of a homage to Midnight Cowboy.
The soundtrack selections are excellent reflections of the environments the characters are in, from Latin in California, to hip hop in New York to a lovely range of Southern country and gospel, moving through Texas, with a Lucinda Williams track, Native American in New Mexico, with a beautiful new Dolly Parton song over the credits that should get an Oscar nomination. (12/5/2005)
The Syrian Bride uses the familiar comic genre of the colliding tensions in an extended family wedding to humanistically illuminate Middle East political, gender, generational, religious, modernization and economic tensions coming down to human relationships vs. bureaucracies.
Co-writers Suha Arraf (a Palestinian journalist) and Israeli director Eran Riklis pile almost too much on to this one Druze (Israeli Arab) family living in the occupied Golan Heights in order to make the personal political. The tensions, poignancy and symbolism of a wedding are heightened because when this bride leaves her home for her arranged marriage with a Syrian celebrity, she will not be able to return home.
Every complicated character has a complicated background, whether theirs or their parents' politics or their religiosity or their dress or their educational or romantic aspirations-- and is in a complicated relation to every other character and the authorities.
In addition to the return of prodigal sons from overseas, the larger community intrudes on the intra-family tensions, from robed tribal elders and the police who each bring warnings of proper behavior to a comical videographer. My dependency on English subtitles lessened some of the impact of hearing characters switch from Arabic to Hebrew to French to Russian to English to communicate, as part of the interactions are based on who can understand different languages and who can't. This complex in-gathering all symbolically happens the same day as a demonstration in support of the change over of power in Syria from the father the dictator to the son, while a flat tire leads to a crucial delay. The ubiquitous television, and government attention, however, is focused on the West Bank, making this border a forgotten zone as well as a no (wo)man's land.
What makes it all hang together amidst this human comedy is the central focus from the start to the finish on the almost silent bride, dressed in Western white, and her more verbal older sister, rebelliously in slacks, and both played by powerful actresses. Each has made choices in the past they regret and each chooses their future now, despite the efforts of all their male relatives, let alone global politics, to thwart them and make them helpless.
Even with the heavy-handed baggage of all the Crash-like coincidences, the film beautifully makes the point that politics isn't just ideology but affects how people get on with the basics of their lives. (11/28/2005)
Bee Season is much better than the trailer foretold and almost surmounts a central miscasting to re-interpret the strongest aspects of Myla Goldberg's novel, which my Fiction Book Club had thoroughly enjoyed discussing.
The film blends a family drama with two contemporary interests, the Kabbalah and spelling bees. Unfortunately, the gimmicky celebrity populism of the former is accentuated with the wincible casting of Richard Gere as the father who is supposed to be a Talmudic scholar with a dissertation on Jewish mysticism.
When he was shown giving a simplistic lecture at multicultural UC Berkeley on the theme of tikkun olam (repairing the world) that is echoed throughout the film, I felt the only way I could accept him in the role at all would be to assume he was a gentile intro to comparative religion teacher, even though he has lines denigrating Jews who chant Hebrew in synagogue without understanding the language and about inspiring his French Catholic wife to convert. He does put across well how the patriarch bullies the family emotionally and controls them with food, rigid standards and attention, like a more subtle Great Santini, but he lacks the pale intensity of the obsessed and just seems another NPR-listening, Bach-duet playing intellectual.
Until the involving climax, though, there are ironically very little Hebrew numbers as letters to guide the secrets of the universe in the movie when the dad takes his spelling wunderkind daughter under his wing to teach her the power of language, but it does lead to the most powerful scenes in the film of letting us see what's going on inside her head. Flora Cross in her debut is the anti-Dakota Fanning in absolutely convincing us that she is in thrall to a supernatural gift and that her kabbalistic studies, which are usually forbidden to young people for their psychological dangers, are opening her up to hidden reservoirs of perception. It is completely exceptional that special effects can be so extraordinary and important to an intellectual family story, but they are not only enchanting but demonstrative. Cross naturally communicates how she intuitively is in touch with a force that her father can only enthusiastically theorize and not quite capture himself.
The sharp editing is superb at clarifying cross-currents from the book, and perhaps making it much easier, perhaps a bit too simplistically, to see how each member of the family is seeking the face of God in their own way. The son, dark heart throb in the budding Max Minghella, is, as usual, seduced by a bland blonde shiksa, Kate Bosworth, though with an unusual rebellious religious twist that here seems natural to the Berkeley environment. But then his Jewish religious education seemed pretty random.
The editing and the special effects also marvelously contrast the paternal theme with the other fractured visual theme of the kaleidescope that the mother favors. While Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal's adaptation (and it's nice to see Maggie and Jake's mom's work again) makes the details of the mom's increasingly disturbed activities more incomprehensible than in the book, Juliette Binoche superbly adds a fragility and depth to the role beyond the novel and makes her heartbreakingly sympathetic.
The conclusion is more emotional, if more pat, than in the book, though some interpretation is still possible.
In making the intellectual visible, the film also uses library settings as an inner sanctum very warmly.
Nice to hear the band Ivy on the soundtrack and over the credits. (11/28/2005)
Prime is surprisingly entertaining. Writer/director Ben Younger was so good at capturing macho New Yorkers of the bus and tunnel ilk in Boiler Room, that I was skeptical he could pull off capturing, and being sympathetic to, the romances and families of Upper West Side and downtown women.
The inevitable Woody Allen comparisons are not apt, as unlike that city auteur, let alone Philip Roth, Younger doesn't seem to hate the Jewish women in his life - this film is even dedicated, at the end of the credits, to his grandmother. While this film, like In Her Shoes, is portraying a new model of a sexier Jewish guy than the stereotyped nebbish (and Younger is of course good at accurately, and amusingly, representing urban guy-ness with sweaty playground basketball, hip hop clubbing and video games), he is also much more sympathetic to Jewish families and traditions, including the loveliest recurring image of contemporary, weekly, multi-generational Shabbat dinner gatherings I've seen in the movies. This warmth makes the contrasting tension of estrangement more emotional. While Streep's "Lisa Metzger"s warnings to her son about the religious aspects of intermarriage don't ring 100% consistent with both her observance and her therapeutic recommendations, they are amusingly compared to the grandmothers' reactions, from the nostalgia of his old world, late "Bubbe"s exaggerated physical commentary to his living, affectionate grandparents the roommates on Grand Street with their plastic slip covers and cooking.
I suppose I shouldn't be equally surprised that Meryl Streep, the Queen of Accents, could pull off a Jewish CSW, but this may be the first time she's played a very specific type with which I am quite familiar in detail. Other than a couple of scenes where her mimicry was a bit over the top in her mannerisms (plus her wig was very distracting until the closing scenes), I could believe she was a Jewish mother sincerely concerned about her son's and her patient's relationships. As a comic actress, she was very funny, just through facial expressions, when we realize she's putting together in her head how her family and professional lives are colliding. It's marvelous to see her thinking. But she was at her best in warmly maternal scenes that anchor the direction of the atypical conclusion of the film. She's helped enormously by costumes with pitch perfect accessories (though the earring choices are way too bland) and production design of her surroundings (it's nice to see the Astoria Studios used to recreate believable apartments from the Lower East Side to Chelsea to the Upper West Side).
I've a soft spot for Bryan Greenberg from the teen soap opera One Tree Hill and the pseudo-reality HBO show Unscripted, which sort of included back-stage aspects of this film, and it's nice to see him get to act unshaven closer to his real age for a change. He does hunky boyish earnestness quite convincingly without ever turning his character into a metrosexual. He's delicious eye candy with bed hair and a towel. However, it was a bit too easy to have Younger make his "David Bloomberg" an artist, as if there aren't a thousand other career talents in NYC that a non-quasi-autobiographical element in a story could reflect. But Uma Thurman's "Rafi Gardet" career as an assistant to a big fashion photographer was a bit too Hollywood glamorous as well (unless this film was also about class as well as religious differences, wouldn't his Bloomberg family have been to the Hamptons so that wouldn't have been so new to him?, though the explanation for his ignorance of wine was amusing).
Uma Thurman was not just lovely, of course as the inevitable Jewish male fantasy shicksa (some stereotypes don't die in films by Jewish men), but was believably grown-up as her sadder but wider The Truth About Cats and Dogs ditz a decade later. The film's arc from her low self-esteem as a divorcée, to blooming infatuated lover to mature woman understanding what she wants and needs from love at her age is so refreshing that it lifts this film from the easily categorized ranks of chick flicks, even if the concluding coda feels a bit tacked on and doesn't 100% work without more information on the results of her character's choices.
While Younger makes the therapy sessions more like girl talk, and his brief stabs at girl and gay talk conversations don't feel quite right, it's "Lisa"s analyst who keeps more accurately asking "But how does that make you feel?" rather than her own more maternal advise to her patients, let alone her son. The film is clear that the resolution is not about the titular prime numbers of people's ages in relationships, but where they are in their lives, which is not usually realistically dealt with in silly fantasies like Maid in Manhattan.
Ryan Shore's score showed appropriate diversity and the song selections were nice reflections of the characters and their milieus, from hip hop to Rufus Wainwright to Ray LaMontagne to a few standards, including a sweet concluding cover by Rachel Yamagata.
The location selections exquisitely represent each character. I realized in watching the film that I had seen its set ups to shoot all over the city as I walked around trailers and lighting equipment in areas I frequent, from the Farmer's Market to sushi restaurants. It was nice to see my favorite indie theater Cinema Village featured, even if it's really the Film Forum that would have an Antonioni film festival and that's not its real rest room area. (11/4/2005)
In Her Shoes is a mostly successful effort at sustaining a bittersweet comedy about imperfect adult family members affecting each other as they learn to live with each other by growing and changing. The film well demonstrates that the way people interact with the world is based on how they learned to interact as children with their immediate family members so that we are still those children inside.
Director Curtis Hanson is in his Wonder Boys territory, but this time focusing, atypically for him, on the women. His quick back and forth editing on the two sisters' parallel lives keeps the pacing brisk and rooted in some realism. His facility with cityscapes works well to establish the sisters in their separate environs, particularly Cameron Diaz as she lurches, on the titular heels, from one dark disaster to the next, particular with men.
The acting makes up for what are on the surface quizzical casting choices. Diaz and Toni Colette are only believable visually as sisters in the sense that they both are females; I expected the Big Family Secret Revelations to be that they had different mothers, especially when family members comment how much Diaz looks like the mother but the photos sure don't reflect that or maybe that she will have inherited another ominous similarity from her mother. But they manage to establish a rapport of once closeness that's fraying apart, though the past intimacy is only implied.
I suppose it's intentional that Colette blends more into her scenery, as a literal wallflower, as she likes playing these supposed Plain Janes (as in Muriel's Wedding, Clockwatchers and About A Boy) and here she has claimed to have gained 28 pounds for the role so that the family can rib her "Rose Feller" about her weight but she looked normal to me and only the scraggly brown hair in her face and clunky glasses telegraphed that this was a movie star playing ugly duckling. I would have liked more evidence that she was not a mouse in her lawyer skills, but we don't really see a demonstration of her competence to contrast with Diaz's floundering but sexy "Maggie Feller" as they gradually cross-over how they each gain confidence to face their pasts and forge a new future together. I suppose there's some sort of feminist message about the advantages of entrepreneurship for women.
Beyond the opening voice-over narrative, the relationships are developed very well visually. I particularly liked how Mark Feuerstein's "Simon Stein" is believably introduced and evolved into the story line as a romantic interest. Unlike the cardboard males in most chick flicks, he seems like a real, three-dimensional guy who is endearingly trying to make a connection with a colleague. It is not just due to Susannah Grant's adaptation that he manages to be not quite hunky but cute and appealing, especially in a charming use of a stereotyped romance novel for seduction (though how his character stays thin when restaurant eating is his #1 hobby is the magic of the movies), and even though wearing glasses he is not a push-over even through to the conclusion -- I really felt for him when "Rose" hurts his feelings. But then unlike most chick flicks, even the guys who do bad things get to explain their own hang-ups.
Shirley MacLaine is literally playing her Terms of Endearment character 23 years later, with only a slight change in the post-story line. By bringing that past association with her, we believe more about her interactions with her son-in-law and grandchildren than demonstrated in this script. I liked the gradualness of her developing rapport with Diaz.
The candy-colored, sterile production design around her Del Ray, FL retirement community is a marvelous contrast to the wintry messy Philly setting, though there are too many easy Golden Girls-type jokes.
Hanson commendably resists the usual chick flick tendency to string together pop tracks until over halfway through, and here the Jamaican songs thematically refer to a key scene and are even mostly by the original performers (though I was surprised that he didn't use a cover of Jimmy Cliff's "Sitting Here In Limbo" that would have changed the gender.)
The other pop culture in jokes are amusing - the gathering around the TV to watch Sex and the City which had a similar obsession with Jimmy Choo shoes (and which Feuerstein guested on, though that actually comes from the book); Diaz's character not being able to read a line about Eminem, when Hanson directed his 8 Mile film; and Colette's character setting a Rocky-like goal of running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum. The poetry reading is incorporated a bit more heavy-handedly (the two key poems are below and are the same key ones from the book) than in 4 Weddings and a Funeral but at least it's believable that Norman Lloyd is a retired English professor who could patiently introduce the joy of reading poetry to someone who has never read it before.
What is jarring was the choice to keep the Jewish context of the novel even with the casting of Ken Howard, Maclaine, Colette and Diaz, who are individually not given any Jewish shtick or personal connection. All the secondary characters are still made explicitly, and unnecessarily, Jewish -- we see "Scott"s bar mitzvah photo, his dad makes a "mazel tov" toast and a key scene is a Jewish ritual; the residents of the retirement community have specifically Jewish names and inflections, particularly the best friend "Mrs. Lefkowitz"; and the evil Step Mother (called the Step Monster in the novel) is a caricature of a weight-obsessed Jewish Mother bragging about her "My Marsha" daughter who gets a spiteful comeuppance that's odd given that the only way I could absorb the main characters was by assuming that they were gentiles who had married into a Jewish family or children of an inter-faith marriage. The only justification I could think of was to have a warm ethnic family surroundings a la Big Fat Greek Wedding, but the importance of family and friends could be demonstrated with surroundings that matched the lead actors more credibly.(10/20/2005) (updated 11/2/2005)
In Jennifer Weiner's original novel, the characters played by Howard, MacLaine, Colette and Diaz are the least Jewishly-identified, so it's not stretching things to presume they are intermarried. Though clearly they are in completely Jewish environs, surrounded by Jewish friends and relatives (though in the novel "Rose"s best bud is African-American), they themselves use no Yiddish phrases or refer to anything Jewish in their backgrounds; for example, there's only mention of attending other girls' bat mitzvahs, not having ones themselves, though there's a mention in passing of "Rose" having attended Hebrew School. We do additionally learn that the parents had a Jewish wedding by a rabbi is all.
Surprisingly, the poetry learning is more convincing in the movie than in the book, which has "Maggie" in an odd idyll at Princeton that really doesn't make sense, though a better explanation is given for why poetry appeals to her so. "Scott" does have an understandable belly from all that gourmet eating, but has more of a backbone in the movie - and in the book those bodice rippers are read by his mother. A key, silly coincidence and not too credible romance were wisely eliminated.
The tensions among family members are better dealt with in the movie, as some conflicts, revelations and resolutions are appropriately saved for the end. (11/3/2005)
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.
Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart) by E.E. Cummings
I carry your heart with me, i carry it in my heart
i am never without it, anywhere I go you go, my dear;
and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling
i fear no fate, for you are my fate, my sweet
i want no world, for beautiful you are my world, my true
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
here is the root of the root
and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;
which grows higher than soul can hope or mind can hide
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart, i carry it in my heart
Green Street Hooligans is a visually involving attempt at exploring the phenomenon of violent English football fans, but falls down through the story choice of approaching it through a cross-cultural and class perspective.
Perhaps with an eye on the American movie market, co-writer/director Lexi Alexander chose not to use the docu-drama style of Bloody Sunday in trying to understand how a violent incident can explode, but instead almost anthropologically uses the viewpoint of a fish out of water participant observer. That distance is emphasized with an unnecessary and melodramatic voice-over, however, the angle of reporters seeking to go into this alternative universe is not unfounded paranoia as I remember reading a scandal some years ago about a "journo" who did successfully go undercover with such a group and how shocking his reports were.
We see middle class milquetoast, expelled Harvard student Elijah Wood as "Matt Buckner" arrive in England with a belly full of family and class reasons to have pent-up anger at the world. He is accidentally drawn into a completely different world by a plot contrivance that is a poignant fulcrum to the film and its most interesting invention, his rebellious older sister's marriage to a guy who in any other British movie (and just about every other TV show or movie Marc Warren, as the husband, has been in) would be called "her bit of rough." No wonder he keeps calling her his "angel." It's a boundary-challenging, transgressive relationship that we haven't seen much in the movies since A Street Car Named Desire and I would have liked to see more. The relationship link to the hooligans is through the brother-in-law's brother, but he is just carrying on a family tradition.
While Wood's Americanness provides the excuse for the necessary translations of slang, sports nomenclature and social descriptions that I presume the British audience will find redundant, an American audience is more used to the innumerable movies about gangs (from the metaphorical The Warriors or even alternative inner city groupings like in Rize) where race or ethnicity is a crucial element in male bonding and where the violence is expressed through guns rather than these primitive fists and whatever is handy. With the probably not incidental perspective of a female director, it also implies that movies like Romper Stomper that assumed a political sheen to such activities misunderstand the pack instinct. With those factors removed, what you mostly have is testosterone on adrenaline reorganized around "firms" that use sports teams as an excuse for their existence, so it's like Fight Club crossed with Friday Night Lights and Rollerball. The editing emphasizes the emotional process of violence over its results in order to get across the participants' euphoria.
This film may be about as authentic as Hustle & Flow is about rappers and pimps, but as a fable of men gone wild it is involving. I could understand the dialogue so ipso facto that must mean that the actors weren't speaking with authentic class accents. It comes as a shock to casually see that the hooligans are all in fact gainfully employed. For guys who emphasize their heterosexuality, we only see one in an ongoing relationship with a female, though, like with Lords of Dogtown, we get a hint of admiring groupies. Charlie Hunnam's exaggeratedly swaggering alpha male is charismatic, if overly theatrical. The film is insightful at examining the sociology of the groups, showing how the beta male tries to prove himself to the alpha male by ratcheting up the action and distinguishing genuinely disturbed individuals that even the participants identify as "an animal."
The recurrences of issues of family ties, father to son, brother to brother, emphasizes that male tribalism crosses class lines, as queasily indicated in the ambiguous ending. It misses an opportunity to link this behavior to Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room goings on by oddly and somewhat scarily transferring the hooligan behavior to middle class vengeance on the upper class.
Other than the chillingly recurring team cheers that recall A Clockwork Orange, the song selections are good but are very limited, with repeat selections by one band, I guess due to music clearance costs, with, oddly, no metal and only one hip hop number, over the closing credits.
This film almost makes a case for a mandatory draft of young men and limited wars to channel inevitable male aggression in groups. (9/23/2005)
Junebug is a ruefully sweet, clear-eyed take on the going home genre that usually takes the form of prodigal child returning due to a funeral or serious illness with guilt hanging in the air until it ignites an explosion. Instead, debut screen writer Angus MacLachlan has brought "George" home to North Carolina as a coincidence of his new wife's job and life has gone on without him and will continue when he's gone again.
Debut director Phil Morrison does a lovely job of visually establishing how each person in the family has staked out their physical space and roles within the family, even as sounds and light uncomfortably carry through the walls and beyond the rooms. I haven't seen every inch of a normal house used as a movie setting so intensively since The Brothers McMullen, complete with blowing up an air mattress in the nursery. Those scenes contrast with how different the family members are outside that house, such as the sullen, angry brother (Benjamin McKenzie) perking up comfortably with his fellow warehouse workers and "George" easily fitting back into a church service.
While the usual is to have the spouse's estranged family be colorfully ethnic or straight-laced WASP as a comic contrast, a la the Meet the Fockers mode, here they are complicated rural folk and are not condescended to, even as no good deed goes unpunished. Both sides receive their share of mockery and sympathy from the story; everyone's hypocrisy and humanity are revealed and at least two scenes bring tears to the eyes, one touching and the other sad.
While everyone is speaking English, the miscommunications abound, though it is a bit heavy-handed to have the English-bred wife coach the brother on Huckleberry Finn, let alone her bizarre negotiations with a probably crazy local artist. Each either takes a comment too literally or misinterprets passive aggressive silences; what people don't say comes to be more important than what they do say, as even Amy Adams' wonderfully chatty character is warm-heartedly mature and caring.
The big, annoying weakness of the film, and keeps it from being a satisfying film, is the vague character of the prodigal son. While it seems that his older, folk art collecting wife probably lusted after him at first sight because he was the first cute straight guy who walked into her gallery (and I assume there is some significance that he buys the painting that doesn't make him happy), their quickie marriage seem to be based only on newlywed randiness, as everything seems to turn them on. Taking after his father busy woodworking away in the basement, he pretty much sloths out in the house or car, so it is confusing hypocrisy when he suddenly steps up to the plate in an emergency, accuses his wife of not putting family first and then bails on the follow up. Alessandro Nivola well portrays a literal golden boy who is, of course, his mother's heart's delight and in her eyes can do no wrong (even he acknowledges that his new wife is bound to discover his faults), though people who have different positions in their families may interpret the sibling behaviors in different ways. But the film only shows us how people react to him and very little about him other than his casual sense of entitlement, though the mostly silent guy to guy communication is realistic.
Other than one superbly beautiful hymn sung by Nivola (he also sang well as rock star in Laurel Canyon), the soundtrack does not take the T. Bone Burnett traditional songs approach, but instead has a score by Hoboken, NJ's own Yo La Tengo that doesn't take sides between the country or the big city. According to the official Web site, the song that plays in the opening credits is called "Harmour Love," performed by Syretta, on her albums One to One and Essential Syreeta.
I have been inspired by this film to finally tackle Thomas Wolfe's You Can Never Go Home Again. Well, to buy a copy to read someday once I saw at the library how long it is. (8/13/2005)
Here's useful background on the enigmatic "George" character, according to ianm on the IMDb Message Board (Mon Aug 22 2005 09:59:49): "In the original play by Angus MacLachlan on which the movie was based, George did not actually appear on stage. The audience was the character. All dialog which was to include him was actually a monologue to the audience. This device was really interesting on stage, but obviously would not have translated well to the screen."
Beautiful Country is a pastiche of many different ripped from several years old news reports piled on to the life story of one fictional Viet Namese young man like a modern day Job.
Damien Nguyen does an excellent portrayal, though the character is frustratingly passive for much of the film.
While it is filmed, and beautifully, like a docudrama, in the manner of Michael Winterbottom's In This World about a young Afghan refugee, it is basically an immigration story like The Emigrants (Utvandrarna) or Amistad was about the Middle Passage with an even more heavy-handed political overlay. "Binh"s odyssey starts specifically in 1990, in order to just barely make him credibly the son of an American GI and his Viet Namese wife, and whether he's 26 or older, he certainly only gradually develops some smarts, let alone awareness of the world. Much of the details of his life and the world around him are left hazy, maybe because he doesn't have, or seek, a lot of information until towards the end of the film, or until as Tim Roth's odd captain says, he "acts independently." It's certainly unclear as to when he picks up English as there's a confusing scene in a Malaysian refugee camp that seems to be compounded by language miscommunications.
Sabina Murray's script blames everyone -- from the local biases against the children of Americans, to the new capitalists in Saigon who are just like the old bosses even while Ho Chi Minh rhetoric is still parroted, to the pirates and slave drivers who traffic in desperate human cargo (while screening Stone's Wall Street movie for their entertainment) and so on.
On the plus side, all the characters are unpredictably complex. Old footage of a storm at sea is integrated well into the contemporary rust bucket scenes. On the positive side, many of the characters are not stereotypes. Venal characters suddenly act charitably and sympathetic characters take a cruel and selfish turn (Bai Ling is excellent as a cynical Chinese friend). As Renoir said many years ago, everyone has his reasons, and the key may be that each makes a choice for self-preservation, though ironies abound, even as we can't help but tear up at many sad scenes.
Like the Western pop songs that pop up in very incongruous places, it's ultimately clear that director Hans Petter Moland is an outsider to all the elements of this picaresque tale, and while he uses the locales in Viet Nam, New York and Texas (where "Binh" seeks Nick Nolte as his father) strikingly visually, his effort at pinpointing the hierarchal responsibilities for history, politics and economics comes down to one man's exhausting and frustrating life. (8/2/2005)
Lila Says (Lila dit ça) is the freshest and most original update of Romeo and Juliet since West Side Story.
The transgressive nature of their relationship is dealt with much more explicitly, both in their differences and their sexual attraction. Parallel to À Tout de Suite (Right Now) as a relationship between a Polish blonde, "Lila," and an Arab teen, "Chimo," and both being based on putatively true stories, it has far more passion and gets us right into their heads as these two most unlikely soul mates find each other.
Lila's sudden appearance in the vividly shown immigrant slums of Marseilles stands her out immediately, like "an angel" she claims and she is clearly fascinated by his "olive skin." They each reach out counter to their culture and tantalize taboos -- he eschews macho aggression for transfixed listening, while she is quite literally a C.T., with arousing sexual descriptions pouring out of that potty pouty mouth very much like a modern day Scheherazade in an Arabian Days, particularly on one quite memorable bike ride.
We see more and more how this odd relationship becomes a haven for them, as she is an orphaned victim of sexual abuse who has learned the power of being seen as a Lolita fantasy object and he is surrounded by, as he calls them, "losers", frustrated by unemployment and post-9/11 suspicions. They start having an effect on each other as they learn to trust each other in one of the most tender evocations of first love amidst a way too sexually and politically charged environment.
She has a disturbed relationship with her female guardian, while "Chimo" has an unusually supportive and warm relationship with his mother, who was abandoned by his father's attraction to a Frenchwoman, which may explain why he is so much more sensitive than his rough and resentful friends.
When the pair's tentative pas de deux, however, starts to touch other people as they challenge expectations, he when he is faithful to her despite her challenging language of temptation and she by openly mocking the link between sex and religion, they incite jealousies and hysteria that build up in horrific speed to an unexpected tragedy and revelation that has incredible force and power.
It is somewhat of a cliché in the young immigrant love genre that "Chimo" as the narrator is struggling with being a writer, but his talent and insights fit both sweetly and dramatically into the storytelling.
Vahina Giocante, as "Lila," shifts amazingly from brazen flirt to demure school girl, while Mohammed Khouas, in his debut as "Chimo," is captivating and heart breakingly believable, both in his early naive curiosity and in his later growing maturity.
The editing is terrific at matching their emotions, with tight close-ups when they are together, and encompassing mise en scene shots of their environments when they separate.
The music selections well match their different backgrounds and coming together.
This is an exhausting and exhilarating look at young love and life lessons. (7/18/2005)
Heights takes a dramatic view of a narrow, two-degree-of-separation Manhattan of ambitious, beautiful people as in Sex and the City where the women are strong and the men are promiscuous, gay, immature and/or liars, and manages to make it touching.
While Chris Terrio's directing over emphasizes the bitchy, gay world of the theater, the arts and the journalism that feeds off them (where Rufus Wainwright can pretty much replay his public persona), Amy Fox's screenplay ultimately has a sympathetic heart for the gradually revealed interconnected characters so we do care about them.
Sensitive, powerful performances withstand the artifices of the structure around a concentrated day of rehearsals for "the Scottish play" and interviews for a magazine article for an exhibit opening. Glenn Close, looking very different than in this season's The Shield, starts out as the very image of a gay icon diva, a la her Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, in various, too pointed interpretations of Lady MacBeth and too many Shakespeare quotes, but the film intriguingly explores the complex reactions of a heterosexual woman who attracts gay fans, and her flirtatious eye for young hunks is fun to watch. She gradually reveals a more full-rounded woman, wife and mother over the course of the day. Her belief in the passionate power of literature seems an affectation until she uses it for beautiful succor for her daughter, in adapting Poe's "Annabel Lee," as "Isabel Lee."
Elizabeth Banks, as her daughter, starts out as the usual perfect bland blonde shiksa her Jewish fiancé would prize, then gradually reveals a mature modern woman torn at first between marriage and career (including weighted temptations with Matthew Davis as her ex that she deals with deftly even if another macho guy shows up as a non-American savior), who is then roiled in facing other truths about love and one of her photographer subway subject's excoriation to "get your own life."
Scenes that seem just to be there for comic relief as they go on a bit too long, like the somewhat bumbling interfaith marriage counseling session with George Segal as the family rabbi or a pretentious party with a cameo by gossip columnist Cindy Adams, turn out to be poignant chinks in the deconstruction of an artificial existence. It's too bad that the repeated question about the traditional breaking of the glass at the wedding ceremony is only superficially explained as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple, as the full symbolism of sorrow always to be remembered amidst great joy is pregnant for the story.
James Marsden's handsome beauty to the camera is striking but is used as a continuing visual theme and plot point, as his fiancée says: "Of course he hit on you. Just look at you!", but we intensely feel the agony of his "very stressful day."
While the ending is almost too neatly on the road to reconciliation, I was in such tears for these people that I was relieved that there was hope for their futures, as they do stick with you after the credits.
The music is an excellent backdrop for sophisticated New Yorkers, particularly the many selections by Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos.
But roof tops have so much titular significance for the film, including an overly symbolic door that opens on to a church-like water tower, that it's surprising that no one is at least humming "Up on the Roof." (7/10/2005)
Kings and Queen (Rois et Reine) is a deceptively beautiful looking exploration of the differences between appearances and substance.
Our first impressions of each parallel character who seems to have no relation with any other character undergo a complete turn-around by the time we have finished circling around them in time and space at the end of the film, especially as we begin to realize they are unreliable, self-serving narrators of their own experiences.
Each person is part of a very modern blended family, both by genetics and selection, and faces the most quotidian of life cycle decisions -- life, birth, marriage, paying bills, parent/child responsibilities, Laingian sanity and particularly death -- and makes a different choice how to handle them, whether active or passive, peremptorily or as fate. But each choice leads them to the next unexpected plateau of choices with guilt hanging on each move.
For each, doing the right thing means something completely different as each responds differently to an emotional and physical crisis. Though psychoanalysis is drolly mocked as just another philosophy, each character may be eccentric or seriously crazy and undergoes Freudian traumatizations by family in casually cruel ways that alternate between funny and shocking (and sometimes absurd).
Director/co-writer Arnaud Desplechin revels in the diversity of his characters, so that as their orbits collide they can hardly communicate because their frames of reference are so different.
The acting brilliantly matches the unexpected revelations that flash back to let us know how each character got to be this person and the transformations to where they are going. Emmanuelle Devos as "Nora" lusciously fills the screen even as we find that her nonchalant beauty masks the devastation she leaves in her wake as it helps her use others for her selfish needs.
Desplechin has frequently cited Woody Allen as an influence (and Seinfeld), and Mathieu Amalric's Ismaël is a tribute to that talkative, intellectual Jewish persona and Philip Roth is mentioned as well, though this character is much more up on hip pop music and surprisingly matures as he gains far more humanity than his New York inspirations.
The film is long and slow, but curiosity about how each character got to where the film started is involving. It's impossible to keep up with all the erudite references to poetry (Desplechin says the title comes from a chess metaphor in a French poem: "King without kingdom/ Queen without a scene/ Castle broken/ Bishop betrayed/ Fool as a brave man"), literature, mythology, art, music and film ("Moon River" seems to be used frequently these days).
Eric Gautier's cinematography is sensual and is particularly dreamy when an awful event occurs.
The production design creates illustrative environments for each person and family, as every object around each character has ironic counterpoint to the dialog.
The soundtrack eclectically extends from electronica to klezmer to hip hop to singer/songwriters Paul Weller and Randy Newman to classical and more that reflect the characters' psychological mise en scenes. (6/14/2005)
À Tout de Suite (Right Now) breathlessly recreates the New Wave/Nouvelle Vague style as a way to very effectively provide the female point of view parallel to the more violent American films Malick's Badlands and Spielberg's Sugarland Express that also portray chases inspired by true stories of the same period. But by filming in black and white, writer/director Benoît Jacquot is able to seamlessly incorporate period mise en scene backgrounds.
Isild Le Besco, a young, gorgeous actress with a surprisingly long resume, fearlessly portrays Every Mother's Nightmare of a restless, rebellious teen, filmed like an older, blonder, distaff bourgeois version of the boy in Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows. She quickly moves from cutting classes and experimenting with drugs and sex to the thrill-seeking of realized fantasies in being on the lam with an exotic boyfriend.
Ouassini Embarek appropriately comes across like a Moroccan James Dean and her exploration of his family and roots is an unique feature of this genre. One advantage of setting the story firmly in the 1970's as it happened is the close encounters of experiences like those that more viciously victimize today's European girls on the loose, as in Lilja 4-ever, only terrifyingly threaten as she is able to be surprisingly resourceful, if well, flexible.
The director does communicate that actions that are innocent explorations between teens take a more menacing turn when an adult is involved, but she is more manipulative than any American filmmaker, since Scorcese's Taxi Driver, would probably portray teen girls in parlaying their sexuality for survival on her terms, though sometimes her long stretches of passivity are slow and frustrating in between the action generated by the repetition of the titular call to arms.
The music of Tangerine Dream in particular on the soundtrack helps reinforce fears with a slightly sinister leit motif, and the rest of the European period pop music is atmospherically selected.
Jacquot stays sympathetic to her point of view through to the end, even if the lessons she has learned seem more from a reality TV show or the criminal satire From Noon Till Three than a mother might wish while a parent's overreactive lesson might be: Lock up your daughters!
Close-ups are a bit over-used, but they reinforce her adolescent self-centeredness. (5/30/2005)
Red Doors starts out looking like a re-tread of early Ang Lee movies, but quickly adds a charmingly unique cross-generational element as three sisters and their father are at crossroads in their lives from retirement to career and romantic choices to literally explosive teen rebellion.
Each of the Chinese-American daughters has a relationship with a Caucasian, but inter-ethnic issues are less of a concern than human issues of self-realization, as the characters end up drawing strength from their cultural context as they deal with the pressures of being "the model minority."
While the writing is stronger than the directing as there's some drag, particularly during the middle daughter's seemingly endless and petty travails, writer/director Georgia Lee makes the best use of actual home movies - her family's -- since Capturing the Friedmans, for bringing memories to life such that we are actually seeing her sister's, lively co-star Kathy Shao-Lin Lee's, childhood as the family members take turns digitizing home movies.
As is usual in first timer's ethnic coming-of-age movies there's a bit of a stereotyped emphasis on art vs. commerce career choices and high school memories that are doubtless a filmmaker's autobiographical resonances. But each character is very much an individual, including having their own musical themes, from hip hop to mopey singer-songwriter tunes.
The teen ager is an original spark plug of comic relief even as the family members' relationships aren't all resolved sit com style. I particularly liked how the acculturated oldest sister pushes the depressed dad (a marvelous Tzi Ma) to see a shrink but he wisely finds a more traditional healing process that's the opposite of talk therapy and a touching contrast to the similar emotional crisis in About Schmidt.
The title was explained in an off-hand remark at the end, a reference to the tradition of painting one’s front doors red to bring good luck, and not all the audience caught the meaning, though we all appreciated the red doors pins that were distributed after the screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.
It was also nice of the director to give up some of her allotment of tickets to people on the long line hoping to get in, which included many Chinese-American women from around the New York metropolitan area who had heard about the film through word of mouth.
The potential audience may be confused by the time this film is generally released with Saving Face that is being distributed earlier, as they share a few plot points, including parental conflict and a lesbian daughter, but on its own it is a lovely, sweet film. (5/25/2005)
Watching the film The Merchant of Venice was my first exposure to the play, not having read it nor seen a production, so I was in suspense as to the outcome, then read the play for comparison.
While the opening credits identify it as "William Shakespeare's," this is definitely director/adapter Michael Radford's interpretation. He chooses to very specifically set the play in its time period and place, with a long introduction about the place of Jews in the very structured Venetian society of the 16th century.
The canals and water images dominate, especially as they lap up against dark walls that reinforce social strictures, particularly against Jews and women, even as we see that Venice's sea trade is bringing this narrow society into contact with Moors and diverse cultures. (The half-naked women lounging around constantly in the background are totally gratuitous to communicate a lax port city.)
Radford effectively adds movement by letting us see actions that are otherwise described or referred to in the third person in the play, so that we see the characters' back stories of obsession to well ground the roundelay of revenge, especially in Antonio's crude behavior to Shylock. He also adds to the sub-text through close-ups of the excellent cast who each add considerable humanity to their roles, particularly Jeremy Irons's pained Antonio.
The casting emphasizes the generational conflicts and relationships, between Al Pacino's Shylock and his rebellious daughter Jessica, the manipulatively homo-erotic one between Antonio and Joseph Fiennes's Bassanio, Portia's frustration with her dead father's instructions and then with Antonio as a rival for Bassanio's affections, and even the clown servant (played by The Office's Mackenzie Crook) with his father.
I was more caught up in these complicated passions than the issues of anti-Semitism, as the motivations are of fascination here, with everyone's hypocrisies showing. Pacino is particularly strong at showing how it is Jessica's escape that drives him beyond hatred to the verge of madness.
No one has pure motives -- each of their's love is tainted by money issues; for example Radford adds in a bit of business of Lorenzo making sure that Jessica's stolen trunks of jewels and ducats are secure during their elopement. Each man's vow is compromised and trumped, with each of the women reduced to genderbending sophistry, trickery or betrayal to get what they want within the bounds men have put on them.
Portia's plea for "the quality of mercy" is particularly ironic as no one seems to learn from their experiences with justice and matters of the heart, as symbolized by rings that become more a mark of possession than of love unending.
The closing loneliness of both Shylock and Antonio is palpable. Lynn White as Portia is a pale imitation of Cate Blanchett, who was originally cast in the role and had to bow out; she's adequate but doesn't command the screen. Radford adds concluding shots of a sad Jessica that softens her character from the text and adds to the bitter ironies of victimization. (1/24/2005)
Hotel Rwanda masterfully humanizes the enormity of the Rwandan genocide by focusing on the sane humanity of one man and his family when the whole world around them has gone insane. It ranks with Schindler's List as a film and a statement of the potential for action when faced with man's inhumanity to man.
It is not just Don Cheadle's superb inhabitation of the real life hero Paul Rusesabagina that makes this film captivating. Co-writers Keir Pearson and director Terry George (who has previously shown through Irish films his understanding of fratricidal civil war engendered by colonialism) do more than guide us step-by-step through the facts of a few horrific days in 1994. We also see the transformation of a man who had benefitted in an ironic oasis of a four-star Belgian tourist resort as a proud Hutu accomodationist to elitism, corruption and racism.
Less a docudrama like Bloody Sunday, this is gripping story telling of personal relationships, quick thinking, and moral responsibility. The film is not only edge of your seat suspense on the roller coaster of events to know what happens next to people we get to know (Sophie Okonedo has magical chemistry with Cheadle in portraying his spirited Tutsi wife) but also full of the humor, pathos and individuality of human foibles and emotions.
The wider background to the situation is explained very quickly in passing, to a photojournalist moved to care, played by Joaquin Phoenix, as a legacy of racist Belgian rule that sounds like the plot of a classic episode from the original Star Trek, so is even the more shocking for being true.
We've seen before the agonizing futility of "the whole world is watching" hope in films going back to Ship of Fools, here painfully racist as well, and we've seen films about incomprehensible African strife through the eyes of sympathetic white witnesses that come across like Uncle Tom's Cabin. Revelatory are how the African vs. African tensions are demonstrated, not only the culminating tsunami of violence (the visual gore is minimized such that seeing dead bodies, particularly of children, to the horizon is effectively stomach-turning enough so we don't need to see close-ups of machete wounds), but we are caught up in the build-up to the tensions, the humiliating negotiations to try and maintain civilized behavior, the class clashes, tribal treachery, and the specter of future repercussions, all scarily recreated.
The U.N. peacekeepers, represented by Nick Nolte, are presented more positively, and not as helpless, as their bitter depiction in Yugoslavia as in No Man's Land. The ever-present ranting radio, whose managers have been accused of war crimes, is a frighteningly heard presence in orchestrating the horror.
The closing song, “Million Voices” by Wyclef Jean, sounds quite much like Peter Gabriel's tributes to Stephen Biko and Nelson Mandela, but the Afro Celt Sound System's score well exemplifies the movie's theme of a bitter tragedy for African and European cultures. (1/17/2005)
I didn’t see the precursor to Meet the Fockers, but so much of it has entered general popular culture that I could get all the references, plus the young noisy audience I saw it with helpfully shouted out all the links.
This audience loved the easy-going slapstick and physical humor the best. The sight gags with the nephew baby are at the Look Who's Talking level.
While much of the movie is just plain silly and predictable, the old pro's Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand and Robert DeNiro are having so much fun that they are completely irresistible. Streisand in particular avoids the usual stereotypes of a Jewish mother by creating a character who is a bit kooky, as a sex therapist for senior citizens, but, as her husband admiringly says, “a very strong woman." I particularly liked how Hoffman, playing a real mensch, defends their relationship with their son to the in-laws, that the worst they can be accused of is loving him.
This may be the most benign image of secular Jews since Barry Levinson's Baltimore nostalgia-fest with Jews here being portrayed as earthy, honest and emotional. Streisand throws in less Yiddish than Michael Meyers used in imitating his mother-in-law on "Saturday Night Live." The closing wedding tries for compromise in that they are married under a huppah canopy, with a yarmulke-wearing gag “interfaith minister” (Owen Wilson in a cameo recall from the first movie) who clumsily does a kiddush blessing on the wine for no particular reason, instead of the traditional breaking of the glass. The daughter takes her stand by declaring herself a Focker and his parents triumphantly assert that her family has been Fockerized – a new kind of assimilation strategy, though the audience mostly responded to the pun. What was odd was that the writers or the director were so afraid that their portrayal of the Jewish parents might seem offensive that they added on a coda over the credits where Ben Stiller, more in his real persona than as "Gaylord Focker," redundantly and explicitly defends his family for hugging, loving and being in touch with their emotions. The audience stayed through this tirade expecting a jokey punch line and were confused that there wasn't really any.
The script, mostly by the same writers as the original, doesn't let Blythe Danner portray any of the brittle manipulativeness she masterfully displays in the Showtime series Huff.
While Randy Newman did the music, there’s only two originals of his breezy songs, over the opening and closing credits, and they are not particularly outstanding. It is odd that several classic rock songs are thrown in. (12/31/2004)
Ae Fond Kiss manages to find appealing freshness in a tale probably older than Romeo and Juliet.
There have been many, many films that have dealt with the conflicts between young lovers from different ethnic or racial backgrounds and there's strengths and weaknesses in how director Ken Loach and his frequent collaborator writer Paul Laverty avoided some clichés while stridently emphasizing some others.
The fresh POV is that the young Glaswegian Muslim/Catholic couple is not naive teenagers experiencing love for the first time, conflating The Other with sexual discovery, but experienced 20-somethings who know perfectly well about the vagaries of relationships. He even expresses surprise that she had entered into her first marriage at the young age of 19.
In addition, this is the first such genre film I can think of where the one in the couple feeling the pull of traditional responsibilities is the guy; usually it's the girl who is drawn to assimilate by a handsome charmer. The gender switch provides an interesting dynamic that effectively shows how ethnic and racial tensions add to the simple interactions or the usual up and down strains that any new relationship goes through. For example, his seductive reaching out to her on an early date emphasizes his fascination with her wavy blonde hair.
While their relationship is allowed to grow gradually out of a mutual interest in music, they develop a frankly, deliciously sexual relationship, whereas most films in the genre gauzily avoid such aspects of interracial romance, going beyond Mississippi Marsala. They verbally express their feelings for each other with gentle sparring use of epithets -- this is also the first film in the genre I can think of where despite everything they go through they do not declare "I love you." Each has complexities and pressures in their personal lives that the relationship complicates.
Some effort is made to present the Muslim family's viewpoint as coming out of a protective reflex against experienced bigotry from the violence of the Indian partition on, though no thought is expressed for other draws of heritage or tradition. She points out she can't consider his parents as individuals who are other than bigots if he never lets her meet them.
While a younger sister is a conventional rebel (it's a risible cliché of this genre that she wants to be a writer), the older sister has accommodated herself to her cultural requirements in a way to be content in the contemporary world, but this leads her to be desperately pro-active against the couple.
Poignantly, communication across the divide is almost not possible, that slim reed called love may not conquer all, and there is genuine suspense as they split and reunite and split under the stress. The lead actors are enormously appealing and believable, so we have great compassion for them. George Fenton's music helps to maintain the romantic atmosphere.
On the strident side, their meeting cute is by her breaking up a fight between his sister and racial taunters at their state-supported Catholic school. The bigotry angle is hammered home culturally incongruously by displays of the notorious lynching postcards with "Strange Fruit" playing in the background.
The Scottish brogues are mostly comprehensible to American ears, though the specifics of some jocular exchanges are lost. The cinematography well conveys gritty Glasgow. (12/3/2004)
Purple Butterfly (Zi hudie) is a Chinese take on Charlotte Gray.
There are also references to The Third Man in how the characters' loyalties and knowledge of each other's motives switch, to Shanghai Express for the trains, locales and extensive close-ups of beautiful faces, and to Casablanca as if these characters had more dialogue they would probably say something about their personal lives not amounting to a hill of beans amidst war breaking out in the late 1930's.
Elaborate period production design and lush cinematography with very slow camera movement substitute for dialogue.
I know very little of Sino-Japanese relations at this period so I probably missed important portents as the film first follows what I thought were two sets of star-crossed lovers in Manchuria and then Shanghai, whose lives only gradually obviously intersect. I consequently found some plot points confusing, particularly as I wasn't sure if the characters were spectacularly bad shots at point blank range or if we were seeing flashbacks to the point that I wondered if the projectionist had mixed up reels.
I also wasn't sure if I was supposed to have a positive reaction to Tôru Nakamura's character, as the movie is so virulently anti-Japanese, but I found him a very charismatic actor who had terrific chemistry with the very expressive Ziyi Zhang despite the formalized set pieces of their interactions and even though I wasn't really sure about her personal feelings within her Mata Hari activities.
It was completely gratuitous to close the movie with newsreel footage of Japanese atrocities in various Chinese cities during the war. Yes, we know this war was hell on civilians, but hey I'm watching for the romances. (12/3/2004)
Last Life in the Universe (Ruang rak noi nid mahasan) is a testimonial to opening up films to new voices around the world, as Thai director/co-writer Pen-Ek Ratanaruang completely re-invents the worn-out Hollywood genre of opposites meeting cute and attracting (viz. Laws of Attraction or Forces of Nature) that even the French could barely resuscitate in Jet Lag (Décalage horaire).
If I hadn't read a promotional flyer after the movie identifying the star Tadanobu Asano as also having been in Zatôichi: The Blind Swordsman I wouldn't have realized that the charismatic ronin there was the still, isolated, seriously depressed obsessive-compulsive here, but now I see why he's a big star in Japan and I will catch up on his films (oh, he's married to a pop star, directing her music videos, and in his own rock band, too, but I digress, sigh).
"Kenji" meets up with "Noi" a live wire, profane wreck of a Thai escort in tragic-comic circumstances brought on by their siblings that insert startling, balletic violence into the dream-like cinematography by Australian Christopher Doyle, reinforced by the mesmerizing music of Hualongpong Riddim.
But it took me as a monolingual American awhile to figure out that their communication difficulties were based on their limited language commonality as I couldn't tell when a character was speaking in Thai or Japanese (perhaps the annoying white-on-white subtitles could have included some coded indicators) until they ended up struggling in pidgin English. I'm sure I missed many other cultural clues (though I did pick up the telltale yakuza back tattoos that complicate their odd idyll outside Bangkok).
They contradict each other's expectations- he's allergic to sushi, she's surrounded in Western accoutrements; he's mysteriously left Japan, she's determined to emigrate there, and so on. Slapsticky comedy and a sweet children's book continually lull us to the dangers they trip over.
The lovely magic realism leaves the resolution up to interpretation, but I don't think I've ever seen such a moving courtship over the use of an ashtray or as sexy a hopeful line as "Tomorrow we'll do the laundry." This has to be the offbeat romance of the year. (8/11/2004)
Rosenstrasse is a defense of naive Righteous Gentiles, the women who married secular Jews in Germany as the Nazis rose to power.
The Pianist, it goes out of its way to distinguish between Nazis and natives who thought this too shall pass and noble Prussian culture would again assert itself (I couldn't pick up all the cultural references, particularly in the German music selections, though soldiers are seen dancing to Cole Porter songs.).
While the promotion for the film claims that feminist director Margarethe von Trotta is the first to deal with this particular slice of German protest to the Nazi eradication of Jews, a series of German films not otherwise distributed in the U.S. were shown on PBS some years ago and demonstrated that other post-war filmmakers were looking at complicity and professed ignorance among their country people, and that their discovery of their parents' hypocrisy led to the radical politics of 1968. Von Trotta carefully avoids this context by oddly having her seeker of truth be a young American woman who grew up speaking German fluently in the German Jewish émigré enclave of Washington Heights in Manhattan (from whence came Henry Kissinger) and has a South American boyfriend.
Somewhat clumsily for the narrative and for the family, her father's death leads her to investigate her mother's past in Germany to try and figure out why her cold, secular mother is suddenly following shiva (Jewish mourning rituals) for him. (These rituals are disconcertingly portrayed inaccurately -- What rule of silence? Everyone would be talking about memories of the deceased, and eating and eating-- unless the point is to show they don't know how to follow Jewish tradition anymore and talk of any past is verboten in this family).
The film unravels, not particularly satisfactorily, many layers of irony and guilt as personal and political realities are intertwined -- between Germans (especially soldiers who had witnessed what the S.S. was doing in the East, showing it was not a secret at home); between gentiles and Jews (particularly about intermarriage then and now); between survivors and the dead; between men and women (there's an assertion that gentile men deserted their Jewish wives to their fates while gentile women did not desert their spouses); between mothers and children, whether biologically linked or not; between siblings, and between chance and choice.
Katja Riemann's strong performance as the stubborn wife who accidentally becomes an activist by default almost puts aside the fact that her character was monumentally oblivious to what was happening around her until it was almost too late by a thread.
The conclusion seems to come out in favor of compromise as it explores love and tradition, which is inevitably not happy for everyone but may be a flexible response to a complicated past and present. (9/8/2004)
Shrek 2 is an irresistible barrel of laughs.
The constant guffaws mostly come due to the endless stream of parodies of other movies, fairy tales and pop culture icons that cheerfully appear so quickly that it's almost impossible to register them fast enough (and the matinee crowd of adults and very little kids I was with missed some of them). Here's digs at Disneyland and Justin Timberlake, there's a visual from Aliens, the theme and setting of Mission Impossible, the ring forging from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the bar scene from Star Wars, "Holding Out For A Hero" from Footloose, etc., etc., culminating in a rousing chorus of "Mi Vida Loca."
The musical numbers are notable for the lack of treacle that drags down Disney animation, particularly letting Tom Waits sing.
The amusement is considerably moved forward as well with the brilliant voice casting, and entertaining enough singing, particularly Jennifer Saunders as an unusually manipulative Fairy Godmother, Antonio Banderas as a very clever Puss In Boots, and Larry King as the Ugly Stepsister like Marge's sisters in The Simpsons.
The animation style is adequate, but the stream of punch lines keeps you from looking too closely.
Stay through at least the first part of the credits for a funny coda. It's also nice that the last credit is an In Memoriam to author William Steig. (5/28/2004)
Japanese Story is a fascinating exploration of gender and cultural roles, with a more incisive take on the contrasts than Lost in Translation, let alone than in the simplicity of The Last Samurai.
The Australian outback is a harsher but beautiful landscape of blokes and sheilas than the Manhattan of Sex and the City but it brings into relief similar questions of expectations of guys and gals in life and sex.
Toni Colette's "Sandy" is one tough geologist required to guide Gotaro Tsunashima to his father's company's environment-destroying mining businesses. Each suspiciously views the other through narrow stereotypical lenses that block out the complexities of their real lives and potential.
They very gradually adapt to each other, opening each other up to new experiences in quite unexpected ways, even though their language and life communication is still limited. She is the shaggy, physical, confident one; he is the smooth, intellectual, diffident one. "Sandy" is aggressive in a way much more typical of males in U.S. movies, while "Tachibana" is redolent of the farm wife in The Bridges of Madison County.
The third act is even more startling in its catharsis for "Sandy" as she finds inner strengths and vulnerabilities to deal with her responsibilities across the cultural chasm.
My e-mail friend Bronwyn from Down Under notes some additional background: "I think it was filmed in the Pilbara, one of the main mining regions - very rich in iron ore - for Western Australia. Possibly the filmmakers were trying to point out how the open cut mining tears the land apart - especially when the 2 of them are at the abandoned mine and you can see there's pretty much no effort at regeneration of the vegetation. But because WA relies so much on the income from mining, there's probably not so much protesting about it as say in the Northern Territory where most of the uranium mines are and there is a lot of anger over mining on Aboriginal land and in national parks." (1/21/2004 (supplemented 2/22/2004)
The Holy Land tells a story as old as the Bible, and in films certainly as old as The Blue Angel, in a nerd's obsession with a scarlet woman.
The twist is the obsession is at an incendiary intersection, of secular Tel Aviv vs. observant Jerusalem, of old-fashioned and religious vs. modern and profane Israeli Jews, of American and Russian immigrants with starkly opposite motivations from fanaticism to economic opportunity, of Arabs vs. Jews, of intellectuals vs. thugs, of terrorists of all kinds of ages and beliefs and tactics vs. burned-out drunks. In a place obsessed with history, each character is trying to lose the individual past that haunts them, and ends up trapped by it.
The story is powerful, based on the writer/director Eitan Gorlin's original novella, but is hampered by draggy execution in poor quality technical production (I'm sympathetic that he thanks his grandmother for hosting him) with some amateur actors. It has some similarities to other recent films, being somewhat more sympathetic to the Orthodox lifestyle than the rabidly prejudiced Kadosh (here the yeshiva boy's tearful reaction to the casually cruel cutting of his forelocks was really moving), and was like Lilja 4-ever in showing how psychically manipulative is the exploitation of former Eastern Bloc women.
It seems that what all the cultures of the Mideast have in common is unbridled lust such that they end up agreeing on "Where is God? He's in your dick."
In the mix of languages even within a single sentence and accents, I appreciated the presence of subtitles whenever it wasn't clear what was being said. (8/8/2003)
Bend It Like Beckham is not the first movie to deal with immigrant Asians coping with traditional parents and untraditional Western aspirations, from Monsoon Wedding, to even smaller films like American Chai, ABCD, The Debut, and Double Happiness.
And it's not the first sports romance to deal with women striving for equal treatment in athletics, viz. A League of Their Own. But it's the first to combine both genres, and with abundant charm and good will. This is not only a strong statement for continuing Title IX in U.S. sports (petitions in the lobbies would be filled with signatures) and exporting its provisions elsewhere (though someone should have told writer/director Gurinder Chadha that women's soccer is not a big sport in the U.S., either at college or professionally, so the U.S. goal is a bit awkward).
But it is also a clear-eyed look at the stresses, strains, and joys of adolescent assimilation, also heard through the musical selections, amidst ethnic diversity and being a curiosity to both prejudiced and well-meaning natives (which is from another genre of movies, such as Looking for Alibrandi about Italian-Australians.)
While the British slang and "football" references can be hard for Americans to follow, the settings were startlingly identical to my own Queens neighborhoods of attached Tudor houses underneath the flight plan of a major airport amidst a panoply of Asian food markets and natively-dressed shoppers with their rebellious/model minority offspring in tow. Even the crowded public parks filled with a Babel of soccer and cricket players looked just like Queens.
And all should be able to relate to the families on the screen, of sibling rivalries and parental expectations (and funny misunderstandings and real tensions on all sides), shown with great love and humor, including amusing teen fantasies.
The inter-ethnic romance does teeter toward cliché, but just barely avoids falling into that expectation with the heroine's ambiguous embrace of some aspect of her ethnic heritage (besides playing kitchen hacky sack with vegetables while learning to cook samosa), though the double ending is a bit unnecessary.
Be sure to stay for the joyous credits where all the actors demonstrate how much they enjoyed working together. (4/4/2003)
Aw, shucks, so The Outsider (a Showtime original movie) is based on the kind of a romance novel that has a flower on the cover (a thistle to show it's a Western).
But scenic Queensland, Australia fills in quite nicely for Montana as the usual isolated farmhouse works romantic wonders on a hardened gunman (Tim Daly, in a surprisingly convincing turn as a
buff tough guy with a deep bass voice undergoing physical and slow psychic rehabilitation) and a kind, religious, lonely widow (Naomi Watts with an excellent American accent) threatened by evil cattlemen.
From the opening shots, the twist is that she makes the significant moves and decisions in her relationships, and the two leads have hot, dynamic chemistry together. Another twist is that we get to see two Carradines not playing brothers, and neither gets the girl (ah, but I do remember David in the TV series of Shane).
Credit to director Randa Haines for the combination of emoting, setting, cinematography and editing to emphasize the characters' conflicts and changes. And I still feel the same way after re-watching it oh, six times or so!
Wonderful, evocative music by Todd Boekelheide including beautiful ethereal songs from NordiskSong: Music of Norway.
As I made a point to read the original book by Penelope Williamson, props to adaptor writer Penny Wingfield for stripping down the story to simple basics. While she took significant amounts of the dialogue from the book, she took out silly, foreshadowing commentary, extraneous characters, and unromantic sex and discussions about sex. (updated 1/15/2003)
Real Women Have Curves is being distributed by HBO, so I presume it will be on cable, but I felt it was important to plunk down hard cash solidarity to go out to see an ethnic girl coming-of-age movie.
While the title has led most of the reviewers to focus on the positive body image aspects of the story line, it really doesn't make any sense that the mother is constantly criticizing her daughter for her weight when every woman in the movie has curves (a late explanation about catching a husband?). The mother's exaggerated hypochondria is never really explained, but the actress is just a lot of fun as a constant, annoying foil.
My audience of Latino girls of a broad range of ages got a kick out of the frequent switches to Spanish and roared at the depictions of the parents as crazily conservative. I was more interested in how it compares to other such movies (like guy or girl ones such as ABCD, and American Chai, the Greek-American Astoria, The Debut, and one of my all time faves the Korean-Canadian Double Happiness).
As usual, the girl wants to go to college and the parents object (it's always amazing how TV shows and movies make it seem that scholarships to distant private colleges are easy to obtain, with no mention of cheaper, local public colleges as an alternative). The school year chronology about scholarship applications was so wrong here that I found it distracting, but at least she didn't want to be an artist like these usually semi-autobiographical movies do.