1/30/2007

Roads to Koktebel

Directors: Boris Khlebnikov and Alexi Popogrebsky

This Russian import from Film Movement, similar thematically to their release The Middle of The World, finds a poor, down-on-his-luck widowed father setting off across Russia with his eleven-year-old son in tow in the hopes of reaching his sister’s place in Koktebel, near the Black Sea. As the two travel without money or much in the way of luck, they meet locals and are hurt and helped by their encounters until, feeling betrayed by his dad’s falling in love, the young man (brilliantly played by Gleb Puskepalis-- wise beyond his years) sets off on his quest alone. The naturalistic cinematography and feel of the film has drawn several comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick but I also felt that fans of Ashby’s Bound for Glory, Lynch’s Straight Story and those who’ve matured on the road along with the literature of Jack Kerouac will find themselves right at home in Roads to Koktebel. The film is a quiet one with little in the way of dialogue and it’s a cinematic treat to behold wearing its most prominent influence proudly in an ending that pays homage to the famous “by the sea” finale of Truffaut’s 400 Blows, although it’s an excellent piece of film in its own right-- understated and worthwhile.

A Heart in Winter

Director Claude Sautet

Director of Photography Yves Angelo oversaw this gorgeous restoration and HD transfer of Claude Sautet’s heartbreaking French love story to DVD for Koch Lorber Films and the quality of the disc is so great that, even on a smaller home television, the beauty of the film is just as mesmerizing as it must have been in the 90’s to theatergoers. Distant, incapable of affection and shut off from intimacy (as the title implies), Daniel Auteuil is wonderful as Stephane, a man closer to the violins he repairs than he is to the people in his life. When Camille the beautiful musician girlfriend (Emmanuelle Béart, never lovelier) of his boss (André Dussollier) develops intense feelings for Auteuil, their painful love triangle gets even more complicated. For, as Groucho Marx once said, the trio find themselves not wanting to be a part of a club in which anyone would have them as a member but I’m over-simplifying it of course as the score utilizes the fiery music of Ravel to great effect, making it much more complex to viewers. Although intriguingly Claude Sautet depicts the heartbreak of A Heart in Winter with exquisite simplicity in lovely understated dialogue and action, thus earning himself the Best Director award in his native France after the release of the film.

Eat a Bowl of Tea

Director: Wayne Wang

Back in 1989, screenwriter Judith Rascoe adapted Louis Chu’s funny, telling novel about the start of the influx of Chinese Americans in post-WWII New York. In director Wayne Wang’s hands, the script allowed him the chance to as he said, return “to the source of myself” as we watch a young Chinese war veteran return back home to Chinatown with his beautiful new bride (in an arranged marriage that luckily also involved love and attraction) only to face overwhelming pressure by family elders and neighbors in producing the first legitimate Chinese American born offspring. There are some moments played purely for laughs as well as great usage of cinematography, including a sweeping romantic moment between the two would-be lovers admitting their attraction in front of a movie screen. In his affection for both the flaws and admirable traits of his ethnic cast, there is no one greater than Wang in bringing an ensemble cast to life as he showed in the 1990’s with The Joy Luck Club and Smoke (before being relegated to lighter fare like Maid in Manhattan and Last Holiday in the 00's). Reminiscent of Nancy Savoca’s films about the ancestry of her Italian heritage (such as True Love and Household Saints), Wang manages to keep us involved in the plight and the film is charming and fresh, illustrating a piece of Chinese American history and the rights surrounding them in America in the first half of the twentieth century with which some of us may not be aware.

Nobody's Wife

Director: Maria Luisa Bemberg
(1982)

Maria Luisa Bemberg’s intriguingly feminist film caused quite a sensation in her native Argentina, for her tale about a married mother who leaves her husband and children after discovering that her husband had cheated on her. She moves in with a relative, only to discover that the elder women in her culture and family don’t understand her decision and can’t see why she would risk losing her husband, so she decides to become independent, getting a job in real estate, going to therapy and relying on the kindness of good friends including a young gay man with love problems of his own. Bemberg’s film rings with authenticity, illustrating the struggles a separated woman must face and it’s a struggle Bemberg herself knew firsthand as she left a life she considered "asphyxiating" and uneventful in her forties by obtaining a divorce once her children had reached adulthood (as shared in "The St. James Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia"). Bemberg is intelligent enough not to make the idea of leaving a man an easy choice as there are children involved and there’s an achingly real scene wherein the woman confronts her two young sons to tell them that she must live elsewhere, tearfully pleading that they must do this one thing for her. Controversial for its questioning of the strong male-dominated Catholic culture and the depiction of a heartwarming friendship of instinctive compatibility with a gay man (preferring kindness and sensitivity over a smooth, talking, philandering macho straight man), Bemberg’s film busted taboos and proved quite a hit with female audiences, setting the writer/director on a memorable cinematic path.

Agata and the Storm

Director: Silvio Soldini


Nominated for eight David Di Donatello Awards (the Italian Oscars), this frothy, magical celebration of beauty and sexuality in a middle-aged cast has drawn critical comparisons to Almodovar and Jeunet for its sense of whimsy and usage of bright colors and vivid cinematography that pop off the screen. However, Silvio Soldini’s tale of three distinctly different characters who learn that they are related and come together to form a unique family bound more by compassion and love than blood reminded me more of Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat for its offbeat characters and welcome, inviting atmosphere that draws viewers in from the beginning. We want to be a part of this Italian community and for roughly two hours we are. Leading a stellar cast, Licia Maglietta shines as Agata, a beautiful, intelligent bookstore owner involved in a passionate affair with a married man thirteen years her junior. When she has her heart broken (until a twist near the end reminiscent of Sturges’s Palm Beach Story), the resulting “storm” throughout her body causes electrical shorts as she manages to burn out light bulbs and affect toasters, hair dryers and street lamps simply by using them. Her beloved straight-laced architect brother Gustavo (played by Emilio Solfrizzi) has his workaholic life and marriage to a sensual female television version of Dr. Phil shaken by the news that biologically he’s related to a philandering, charismatic clothing salesman named Romeo (portrayed with fiery charisma by Giuseppe Battidton). Romeo, ritually unfaithful yet deeply in love with his wheelchair bound wife Daria (Maria Nappo), lives the life of a passionate dreamer and manages to teach his newfound brother Gustavo and sister Agata a thing or two, and they rub off on him as well. Perfectly charming, full of spirit and life, Agata and the Storm is Italian cinema at its most joyous, once again delivered to audiences from filmmovement.com and available at most larger public libraries.

1/28/2007

A Silent Love

Director: Federico Hidalgo

By now, everyone is aware that the Internet is an increasingly popular place to search for mates with sites popping up by the day, promising users love and companionship for life based on “scientific testing." In addition, no doubt we’ve all heard both horror and success stories of cyber love. Director Federico Hidalgo takes online matching a step further in his tale about Norman Green (Noel Burton), a lonely film professor who finds a young, beautiful Mexican bride online and then invites her and her mother to live with him in his Canadian home. Once the women arrive in Canada, we become instantly aware that it’s a less than perfect match, made even more difficult by the culture and language barriers between Norman and wife Gladys. Add Norman’s increasing attraction to Gladys’s more age appropriate and emotionally compatible mother (beautifully played by Susana Salazar) and you have the makings of a beautiful, subtle love story and cinematic essay on loneliness and companionship. It’s fitting that Norman teaches silent film, for Hidalgo’s work at times operates silently—two completely different languages shared under the same roof invite many questions and miscommunications and at times the action is the only thing that matters—canceling out the overly polite and self-conscious speech between strangers. There’s a lovely moment when Norman screens a silent movie at home for his students and new family—as the rest of the room watches the flicker of the film, Norman’s eyes fall to the mother (and film buffs can verify that movie theatre light always makes things more romantic indeed). The couple’s dancing around the issue of a budding attraction with subtle clues makes the film's title resonate all the more as we discover a silent love growing like a delicate flower (or an even more delicate piece of old celluloid) in Norman’s home. A beautiful film to behold-- it may be a bit difficult to track down but I'm happy to report that it is available from Netflix.

Netflix, Inc.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress



Director: Sijie Dai

Based on the critically acclaimed autobiography of a youth spent in a Maoist Communist reeducation village in the 1970’s, director Sijie Dai crafts a lovely film about the power of literacy in transforming the lives of those who take the time to discover the meaning behind the text. Two older teenagers, Luo and Ma both find themselves enchanted by a local young seamstress and the secret hidden “book grotto” they find containing banned masterpieces, including the works of Balzac. Hoping to educate and charm the young beauty, the boys take to reading her the books only to realize soon enough that the words are affecting them tremendously—while it frees them emotionally and intellectually, the knowledge of a world outside of their immediate village also reminds them of their limitations. There’s a question of ethics concerning their “education” of the Chinese seamstress (played by Xun Zhou in a wonderfully charismatic role)—for it is the girl who undergoes the cruelest twist of fate and at the end, disappears from her village seeking a better life, never to be heard from again. The melancholy disappearance of the seamstress takes our hearts out of the picture in an overly long conclusion about the present day lives of the two boys, which reminded me of the unnecessary director’s cut version of Cinema Paradiso that signified the lesson that in cinema, sometimes less is indeed more. Still, the film is bewitching and will definitely make you want to dust off your old bookshelves in search of the classics. An overwhelming audience favorite at the Scottsdale International Film Festival (SIFF), Balzac was also nominated for a Golden Globe as the Best Foreign Language Film in the year of its release.

Intimate Stories

Director: Carlos Sorin

The tag line for this unique Argentine character vignette promises that, “San Julian is waiting for you,” and it is not false advertising as we follow three very different characters all traveling to the same place for three very different reasons. Sorin’s lyrical work has been the official selection at several festivals worldwide earning the Best Film, Director and Screenplay awards from Argentina's Film Critics Association. Best described as cinematic short stories intertwined in a moving and delicately simplistic tapestry of universal humanity, we first encounter a young mother who packs up her child to participate in a game show in order to win an exciting prize. Along the way, we find ourselves tagging along with a lonely, admittedly peculiar but well-intentioned traveling businessman named Roberto and an elderly man who, despite failing health and eyesight, takes to the road to locate his beloved, missing dog Badface, who's recently been spotted in San Julian. Intimate Stories is as intimate as the name implies—gentle, fun and touching-- it provides a nice change of pace from message movies or overly crowded character pieces that try to force the audience into submission—Sorin’s film makes us care because we feel as though we’re watching lives being lived, not simply cardboard characters uttering dialogue from a predictable script.

Every Other Weekend

Director: Nicole Garcia
(1990)

Actress turned director Nicole Garcia proved she knew how to make a female star shine with this intriguing but slight work that finds the acclaimed, beautiful aging actress Nathalie Baye portraying a has-been movie star hoping to reunite with the children she had ignored in order to advance her film career. In an act of desperation, the divorced mother kidnaps her children, driving them off on an impromptu road trip to Spain in order to bond with her exceedingly indifferent and angry son, still feeling neglected from all those years she’d put her career first. Baye’s husband who holds rightful custody follows them on their journey and while we know how it will all end only a few minutes into Garcia’s story, it’s still a moody, thoughtful and atmospheric film. While Baye is marvelous as usual, Every Other Weekend suffers from a great flaw by not developing the plot and character enough to make the viewer more involved in their voyage—instead of looking in on the family as a near-participant (as in the best family dramas), we feel instead like a hitchhiker the trio has picked up along the way, trying to add our own back-story and motives to fit with the events.

Yana's Friends

Director: Arik Kaplun

Winner of ten Israeli Academy Awards, Arik Kaplun’s Yana’s Friends had all the makings to be a beautiful tragedy—a young, pregnant Russian immigrant (played by the director’s wife) finds herself abandoned in Israel by a husband who took out massive loans and returned back to Russia, leaving Yana to fend for herself at the start of the Gulf War in 1991. Instead and much to the surprise and delight of audiences, the film is funny, warm, and life-affirming as we watch Evelyne Kaplun’s adorable waif Yana (reminiscent of Audrey Tatou) bond with her new roommate Eli, a wedding videographer and aspiring filmmaker who gets more action than Warren Beatty did in his prime. The two opposites form a friendship that blossoms into something more as the tear gas and threats of bombings bring them closer together but it’s more than a simple love story. As the title promises, we get to know the other members of her building and community including a genuinely funny and bittersweet tale of an elderly wheelchair bound veteran and his family. The film is a fascinating work and offers a fresh take on a sad piece of recent world history by showing that the triumph of the human spirit can make anything bearable. Yana’s Friends has drawn raves in film festivals in America as well, winning the award for Best Foreign Film at Houston’s World Fest.

1/26/2007

SherryBaby

Director: Laurie Collyer
(2006)

Recently robbed of an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe (although luckily they had the wisdom to nominate her work), Maggie Gyllenhaal proves once again why she’s one of our most promising young actresses in her emotionally searing portrayal of Sherry Swanson. Recently released from prison after serving a three year drug and theft sentence, Sherry finds that the outside world is even more harrowing than the one she'd faced behind bars as she is challenged at every turn by parole officers, the hunger for drugs, men willing to exploit her when they know they hold the power, and above all her incessant struggle to integrate herself back into the life of Alexis, the baby girl she left behind. When she first reunites with Alexis, it’s joyous, painful and real but the film by newcomer NYU graduate Laurie Collyer doesn’t take any shortcuts—in those three vital years, Alexis has become the “daughter” both emotionally and mentally of Sherry’s brother and his wife. The film is a difficult one to be sure and one that was overlooked after its smash reception and nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival when another acclaimed, similarly themed indie film Half Nelson took the critical spotlight and earned Ryan Gosling an Academy Award nomination. Now that SherryBaby has been released on DVD, hopefully it will find the audience it deserves as theatres ignored the challenging film. Collyer’s film promises more great things to come—she channels John Cassavetes perfectly with this work and Gyllenhaal’s performance immediately calls to mind Cassavete’s recurring leading lady Gena Rowlands. Sherry Swanson is another Woman Under the Influence and it’s Gyllenahaal’s portrayal that keeps audiences rivted. Note: Naomi Foner (mother of Jake and Maggie Gyllenaal) is a close friend and mentor of Collyer and it’s through this friendship that the film reached Maggie.

Men at Work

Director: Mani Haghighi

Fitting to his background as a philosophy major at McGill University, Iranian director Mani Haghighi’s curious, allegorical film about mid-life crises takes a strange twist with Men at Work. Four friends with diverse backgrounds, circumstance and family life find themselves strangely drawn to a large (and admittedly phallic shaped) rock standing on the edge of a mountain. For the rest of the film’s seventy-seven minutes, the men struggle with amateur physics, trying to create fulcrums and levers, using elbow grease and man-made machinery to try and force the rock out of its place and knock it into the water below in a quest of macho pride. Their peculiar goal begins first as a merely fun diversion but the men grow more obsessed as the film goes on—it seems that the rock represents the elephant in the room that no one wants to discuss—the issues surrounding their aging bodies, the prospect of death, mid-life unhappiness and existential angst. The film will warrant much philosophical discussion and while some will definitely find it meaningless (it is after all about four men trying to dislodge a rock), those willing to look beyond the simple premise will come away with something much richer. Men at Work is a unique film to be sure and one of the most intriguing philosophical pieces of Iranian cinema in recent years.

The Perez Family

Director: Mira Nair
(1995)

Screenwriter Robin Swicord and director Mira Nair craft a delightful, surprising and sensuously exotic tale set during the1980 Mariel Cuban boatlift of refugees fleeing from Castro as Alfred Molina arrives to search for his long lost wife and daughter. Many years have passed since he’s seen his wife and complications arrive when both he and wife Anjelica Huston begin to fall for others. Marisa Tomei gives a standout performance as the sexy, free-spirited young woman who poses as Alfred Molina’s wife in the meantime in order to land an American sponsor. A fun, fresh film and its unique take on the issues may have something to do with the fact that most of the people involved (Nair, Tomei, Huston etc.) were not of Cuban descent, therefore lending a creative and multicultural spin on the plot and representing the diversity, celebration of other viewpoints and freedom that draws immigrants like the Cuban refugees here to America in the first place.

Monster Thursday

Director: Arild Ostin Ommundsen

Although filmed in Sweden, this engrossing and intimate Norwegian movie uses surfing as metaphor in its tale of a young man named Even who decides to challenge himself by taking up the sport in the hopes of winning the heart of an old flame. The fact that his ex Karen marries his good friend Tord at the start of the film doesn’t deter our hero in the least although he learns more about putting faith into himself as the surf lessons take effect and after he is asked to take care of pregnant Karen when his friend leaves for Singapore for an extensive business trip. Surfers and those interested in meteorology will love the technical elements but foreign film buffs looking for something different should try to track the film down as it marks a new genre from Norway because honestly, how often are you going to see a film about Norwegians trying to catch a big wave?


By The Sea

Director: Dean W. Barnes

Fans of the magic realism found in books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende will want to take a look at this cute but slight B film confection of fantasy and romance. Elena Aaron portrays Lena, a down-on-her-luck pastry chef who, after a string of horrendous misfortunes, finds herself working as a kitchen assistant in a beautiful seaside resort. Once in her new surroundings, she finds herself under the spell of two men—a kindly handyman (played by Robert Pemperton) and the ghost of a generation’s old baseball player. While some of the elements and plot points work better than the film on the whole as there are moments of pure cheese (both in dialogue and action), the film is nonetheless pleasant enough to curl up with on a rainy Saturday, even though those who know enough about magic realism will figure out the main mystery within the first half hour.

Orlando

Director: Sally Potter
(1992)

Virginia Woolf’s classic tale of gender bending, inspired by one of her female lovers, is brought to life in Sally Potter’s crisp, gorgeously photographed film starring Tilda Swinton as English nobleman Lord Orlando who over the course of hundreds of years, finds he has become a woman, causing both Orlando and the viewer to look at the world through the eyes of both sexes. The result is strange, fascinating, rich, beautiful and ultimately satisfying. Potter, like Woolf, has much to say in this succinct cinematic adaptation clocking in at a mere ninety-three minutes and viewers find with a second or third viewing that there’s more to the film than what immediately meets the eye. Swinton is marvelous throughout and handles the extraordinary events of her character’s life without a blink of confusion— she always knows her character’s motivation and that is simply to live… of course, although when he becomes a woman, “she” learns that there are rules that must be followed to avoid taboo. Speaking of taboos—don’t miss a wickedly clever cameo by Quentin Crisp in complete drag as Queen Elizabeth I.

The Lost Honor of Katherine Blum

Director: Margarethe von Trotta
(1975)

Margarethe von Trotta’s landmark film, co-directed by Volker Schlondorff serves as a warning about the dangers of irresponsible journalism as an average woman spends one evening with a suspected terrorist and finds her private life made public in very shocking ways. Von Trotta’s typical movie themes of socialism and authority abuse are made abundantly clear through a smear campaign started by a propagandist newspaper operating via yellow journalism and police determined to squeeze any information she may know out of this otherwise unassuming woman. Based on the novel by Heinrich Boll, the politically charged film is very relevant today in this era of post 9/11 paranoia and the audience is sucked right in and reminded of Silkwood until realizing at the end that it’s ultimately a manipulative (but effective) work of fiction.

Proof

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
(1991)

In Jocelyn Moohouse’s unusual and compelling directorial debut, Hugo Weaving plays a blind man who photographs everything around him and then asks friend Russell Crowe to describe their contents. The catch is that he needs to trust Crowe to tell him the truth—to help him see what he cannot and when Crowe gets caught up with Weaving’s obsessed, eccentric housekeeper, things get extremely surprising and complicated. This powerfully charged provocative film won fifteen Australian Film Institute Awards and made its writer/director someone to watch. Unpredictable, unsettling and filled with bizarre but effective humor—Proof is completely original and hard to shake from one’s mind.

1/25/2007

El Bola

Translated Title: Pellet

Director: Achero Mañas


Director Francois Truffaut and long-time star/cinematic alter ego Jean Pierre-Leaud would be proud of Achero Mañas’s El Bola, a wonderful tale of a difficult childhood in Spain. Featuring amazing portrayals by its young cast, El Bola earned four Goya awards (including Best Film and Best Emerging Director) for its heartbreaking story of twelve-year-old Pablo (nicknamed Pellet) who endures intense abuse from his father and lashes out at his cruel surroundings with a dangerous daredevil game on the railroad tracks with his friends. After befriending a new classmate named Alfredo, Pablo learns how the other half lives as he spends more time with Alfredo’s kind parents. In a truly moving portrayal by Alberto Jimenez as Alfredo’s father Jose, Mañas plays against audience prejudices and expectations by presenting his work as a tattoo artist and making us form an erroneous judgment before realizing that behind his tough exterior, Jose is the most moral character in the film and the one who ultimately tries to help get Pablo away from his dangerous home environment. While it’s definitely a far tougher film than the iconic 400 Blows, El Bola calls to mind this rough emerging coming-of-age genre (featuring American works Thirteen and Twelve and Holding) that illustrate the new challenges children are facing in a society that forces them to age much faster than we may prefer. All in all, El Bola is an emotional and unforgettable piece of Spanish cinema from filmmovement.com.

Ginger and Cinnamon

Director: Daniele Luchetti


In this joyous and sun-drenched Italian chick flick, thirty-year-old Stefania-- still reeling from a bad breakup-- grudgingly agrees to chaperone her scheming niece Meggy on a spontaneous vacation to the Greek Isle of Love. Meggy, worldly and precocious on the cusp of fifteen explores the island looking for her first fling while her aunt acts twice her age, staying out of the sun and binging on chocolate—together the two girls balance each other out, carrying on conversations filled with hilarious and authentic dialogue that makes the characters sound like an Italian version of the Gilmore Girls. Ginger and Cinnamon is a funny, wise film—a chick flick of the highest quality and co-screenwriter/star Stefania Montorsi (wife of director Luchetti) gives a winning performance. Fun and spirited-- men will enjoy this vacation of cinematic voyeurism just as much as the ladies.

1/23/2007

The Man of the Year

Director: Jose Henrique Fonesca


Based on the award-winning novel "O Matador" by Patricia Melo, Fonesca’s powerful and violent debut film has played at festivals across the globe, earning an award as the Best Film from the San Francisco International Film Festival. Fonsesca, a former assistant to Walter Salles on Central Station, impressed his former mentor so much that Salles called The Man of the Year “brilliantly shot,” and it launched the young director into the new Brazilian wave of filmmaking. Dangerously charismatic in his lead role as Maiquel, Murilo Benicio portrays an average man who finds his whole life changed after a lost bet forces him to dye his hair platinum blonde. Within the first day, he gets into a machismo battle of words in a bar and the next day, ends up committing murder, setting him on his way to becoming a vigilante and unlikely hero in his crime-infested community. The film drew several comparisons to Fernando Meirelle’s far superior City of God due to its similar subject matter and country of origin. In fact, Jamie Russell of the BBC began his review of Man with the following lines, “Imagine if the kids of City of God lived beyond the age of fifteen and became everyday citizens. Now imagine if Quentin Tarantino was Brazilian.” While his words and the comments of other similarly minded critics do indeed hook you and the film plays as an intriguing companion piece to God, Fonesca’s film should be taken for what it is—a brutal but fully engrossing, wholly original work that promises more great things to come from the budding director. Luckily, the film has been made available to audiences in the U.S. from filmmovement.com.

Broken Wings

Director: Nir Bergman

In this moving meditation on the various stages of grief, a hard-working Israeli widow tries desperately to make ends meet while taking care of her four children after the tragic death of her husband. A critical smash in its native Israel, Broken Wings earned eleven nominations and nine awards from the Israeli Film Academy (including Best Film) and Bergman’s film also received accolades around the globe including the Tokyo Grand Prix and the John Schlesinger award for Debut Feature Film at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The heart and soul of the film is in the heartbreakingly real portrayal of the eldest child Maya (played by Maya Maron, also wonderful in Campfire) as she does what she can to keep the other siblings in line while trying to come to terms with her own grief. All four children react to the nine-month old tragedy of their dad’s death with varying levels of acceptance, attitude, risk and existential crises and the film is painfully real yet Bergman has some moments of pure loveliness and bright spots of humor and joy that help keep it from straying too far into the realm of a “great depression.”

The Taste of Others

Director: Agnès Jaoui
(2000)

Nominated for the Academy Award as Best Foreign Language film in 2000, Agnès Jaoui’s clever comedy proves that nothing is less sexy than bad taste, prejudice and appalling manners. Jaoui’s husband, Jean-Pierre Bacri, with whom she co-wrote the film, portrays a dull, industrial married businessman pursuing a gifted stage actress whom he’s hired to teach him English. While critics widely acclaimed this witty ensemble piece as hilarious, its humor is more aptly described as subtle and instead of audible laughs, viewers will find themselves nodding, gasping or feeling slightly jolted by incidents all too realistically portrayed. One downside is the casting director, who along with myself has a thing for tall, dark-haired men but a few of the main characters look a bit too similar and it takes a moment to discern which is which. Jaoui also stars in the film as a sexy bartender who moonlights as a drug dealer in order to pay the bills.

Charlotte Gray

Director: Gillian Armstrong
(2001)

A brave, intelligent woman recruited into the French Resistance during World War II initially joins to search for her missing British lover whose plane crashed in a small French town. After meeting communist Billy Crudup and becoming involved in the protection of two Jewish boys, Cate Blanchett's leading lady gets a change of heart and becomes involved in the fight to defeat the Nazis. While admittedly far-fetched in places, this gorgeously photographed film benefits greatly from the commanding portrayals of Blanchett and Crudup but also from a fine, understated turn by Michael Gambon as Crudup’s father. Notable for its depiction of a female heroine in World War II, the film will appeal to women more than men and is compelling and well-made, despite requirements placed on viewers to greatly suspend disbelief when dealing with some of the film’s convenient coincidences and plot twists.

Morlang

Director: Tjebo Penning

Fans of Memento writer/director Christopher Nolan will love this award-winning import from the Netherlands, finally hitting American shores thanks to filmmovement.com and as an official selection at the Tribecca Film Festival. Penning’s Morlang is inspired and loosely based on a shocking case involving an elderly Dutch husband named Van Bemmelen who broke a suicide pact and was brought to trial. The film is both mysterious and filled with brilliant twists and turns that will keep viewers guessing. Moving back and forth in time deftly and with some awe-inspiring photographic effects, the story of famous egomaniac artist Julius Morlang unfolds as we find him living in Ireland with his current younger muse. However, soon the couple’s idyllic life is interrupted by vandalism and an intruder as events from the past surrounding the tragic death of his previous wife come to light. Penning expertly transports us back in time, moving the story two years earlier to the Netherlands (while inter-cutting the present in what feels like a natural and circular fashion). The film is one that you will want to discuss endlessly afterwards-- I saw it days ago and am still haunted by the images as Penning paints an assured portrait of jealously, betrayal and conspiracy, making viewers question just how well they know the people they love.

Rain

Director: Christine Jeffs
(2001)

Christine Jeffs’s lush, languid film about a young teenage girl’s sexual awakening over the course of a traumatic summer in New Zealand watching her parent’s marriage deteriorate due to alcohol and infidelity is quite something to behold. Jeffs makes excellent subtle choices and depicts everything intelligently, letting events unfold lazily like a vacation day, perfectly adding to the ambience of the piece. Complicated and real— the cinematography is breathtakingly poetic and the performances are unhurried and true. A sleeper tragedy made even more gorgeous in its digital transfer to DVD.

1/22/2007

Songcatcher

Director: Maggie Greenwald
(2000)

In Maggie Greenwald’s sumptuously photographed period piece, Janet McTeer plays forward-thinking musicologist, Dr. Lily Penleric who, as the film begins, is denied a greater academic promotion due to her gender. Drawn by her love of music as well as her desire to leave the cruel city and her married lover, Penleric stays with her sister in the Appalachian Mountains. Once in her new surrounds, she discovers wondrous folk songs and love ballads passed down from generations dating back to the early settlers from Ireland and Scotland that she’s determined to document scientifically and publish as a songbook. While modern day feminist themes abound, Greenwald’s film is successful because, along with the magical beauty of the setting and music, her philosophies shine through and add a layer of utopia to the film. While Greenwald and the viewers know very well that it isn’t historically accurate, like Marleen Gorris's Antonia’s Line, Greenwald’s film is an individualized statement and a way of looking back to examine the past while making us examine the present all at the same time. It worked for me although admittedly it won’t be the same for those longing for a more traditional period piece.

Down In The Delta

Director: Maya Angelou
(1998)

In this heartfelt, huggable little gem of a movie, a Chicago widow packs up her daughter and two grandchildren and heads to her late husband’s ancestral home in Mississippi in order to keep them from slipping through the dangerous cracks of their urban surroundings. Once in the rural “delta,” the family predictably becomes closer and discovers more about their lives and history than they ever would have imagined yet this never feels like a typical coming-of-age film. Never simplistic-- the film is emotional, tough and every scene feels justified as storytelling and characterization are favored over simple camera trickery. However, Angelou does have a few dazzling tricks up her sleeve near the end of the piece when she employs an inventive usage of film technique to tell a story related earlier in the film, providing the viewer with a chance to recall the story as well, thereby making the meaning even more important. This cinematic method called to mind an earlier Miramax venture Smoke that may have been an influence on poet turned director, Maya Angelou.

Valley Girl

Director: Martha Coolidge
(1983)

Before Alicia Silverstone was Clueless in Amy Heckerling’s 90’s teen comedy, Martha Coolidge made the quintessential “like totally for sure” romance film about two teenage opposites who attract in 1980’s Los Angeles. Deborah Foreman’s Julie is a shopaholic from the valley and Nicolas Cage is at his scene-stealing best as Randy, the Hollywood punker that manages to capture not only her heart but also the hearts of movie going audiences across the country with his one of a kind Cage charm. The cool soundtrack makes this film still sound fresh today and while the fashions are outdated, it still makes you realize just how far teen comedies have plummeted since the 80’s and the successful films like the aforementioned Clueless owe Martha Coolidge a great debt.

The Governess

Director: Sandra Goldbacher
(1998)

Jane Eyre meets Virginia Woolf in Sandra Goldbacher’s gorgeously photographed film about an intelligent Jewish girl named Rosina who, after the sudden murder of her father, leaves London for Scotland. Upon arrival, she poses as a Protestant named Mary Blackchurch in order to work as a governess so that she may support her mother and sister. Once settled, Rosina becomes increasingly attracted to the father of the house-- an intellectual man whose experimentations with photography intrigue Rosina and soon the two are working side-by-side and their relationship deepens into an affair, initiated by the head-strong, confident young woman seduced it seems by the older man’s intellect which matches her own. The film is a sudsy, sexy piece of period cinema but our heroine definitely seems too much a product of 1990’s feminist thinking to be believable in the 1840’s setting although it’s intriguing to watch. Goldbacher’s film tries hard and its initial plot and locale are fascinating enough that I wish more would’ve been done with them. In fact, I even read that the director’s mother was born in the film’s setting and she herself is the daughter of a man of Italian-Jewish descent. Again, the history could’ve been better utilized than simply in the tawdry love story and sexual awakening of Rosina but audiences looking for a modern retelling of Jane Eyre should take note.

Earth

Director: Deepa Mehta
(1998)

Writer/director Deepa Mehta adapted Bapsi Sidhwa’s autobiographical novel, “Cracking India” for the second part of her planned trilogy, which began with the controversial hit Fire. Told through the eyes of an eight year-old girl, the religious and civil wars that tore through India and Pakistan in 1947 are illustrated via the girl’s beautiful governess who attracts romantic suitors of all backgrounds. Once the country is divided and the Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus begin turning on each other and the governess chooses her lover, the fate of the country and their lives change forever. Sumptuously photographed and beautifully acted, Deepa Mehta’s film has a few minor flaws but remains an emotionally charged, effective cinematic work, although slightly inferior to Fire. The third and final film of the trilogy, Water, ended up being Mehta's masterpiece.

1/21/2007

Mon Oncle


Director: Jacques Tati

Winner of a special award at the Cannes Film Festival back in its initial release in 1958, Jacques Tati’s awe-inspiring film has since been given the royal treatment in its DVD transfer and restoration from those wizards at The Criterion Collection.

The film features Tati as his recurring, lovable character Monsiuer Hulot and for my money, Mon Oncle is the best entry in the Hulot series (including the memorable Playtime and others). It’s a vibrant slice of life—fresh, fun, and filled a wondrously happy score that plays throughout.

Mon Oncle finds Hulot as a man no longer fitting in with the technological advancements of his surroundings including the hilariously ultra-modern home of his brother-in-law and a plastic hose factory.

Hulot himself seems to have been inspired by Charlie Chaplin and like Chaplin, he’s an endearing character that charms both children and adults alike. Curiously, the film has little dialogue and it’s practically inconsequential as the action is self-explanatory in meticulous gags that must have taken countless hours of preparation for the viewer to find them perfectly natural-- a masterful achievement for the genius Tati.

Mon Oncle is the perfect film to introduce to young children in the hopes of getting them interested in foreign film. Hulot’s legacy lives on—we find his character referenced by Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther series and the films of Wes Anderson in their color, beauty and sheer cinematic joy.

It’s also a great work to put on as a background film at a cocktail party as the atmospheric Mon Oncle has no major plot to decipher and is simply strung together by a sentimental feeling and above all, a beautiful collection of moments pieced together for us all to enjoy.

The Forest For The Trees

Director: Maren Ade


The Forest For The Trees, Maren Ade’s graduation film from Munich’s University for Television and Film has become such a smash since its creation that it’s been featured at more than thirty international film festivals and received a Special Jury Prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. This feat seems even more amazing when one realizes that the work was completed in just twenty-six days. Shot on video by a cinematographer with a background in documentary filmmaking, this excruciatingly real portrait of loneliness tells the story of Melanie, a bright-eyed teacher from a small country school who moves to a better position in the city only to find that not only is it hard to be the new girl (at any age) but even harder to be the new teacher. While one quickly becomes aware that Melanie has an obsessive personality and a few mental health issues as her actions in trying to reach out to a neighbor become more and more extreme, one is also acutely aware and finds truth in the film’s depiction of trying to become the member of a new community, of the uphill struggle of trying to find friends post-college in our current world, and the pressures placed on teachers competing with students who challenge them both vocally and by throwing things. It’s definitely not a film to show an aspiring teacher in their first year on the job but I’m sure it will ring true with veterans in the educational field. By the end of the film, we realize that although Ade’s thoughtfully challenging piece has engrossed us, we also find ourselves wanting to know more about Melanie and the ending itself is vague, terrifying and will unsettle those seeking total closure. Perhaps the film would’ve benefited by showing Melanie in her original surroundings for a better contrast. As it is, we’re not quite sure what Melanie was like as a country schoolteacher and are left with more questions than answers. However, Trees is still an amazing triumph from a new writer and director now made available to American audiences through filmmovement.com.

Anytown, USA

Director: Kristian Fraga

In this engrossing film, the winner of the Best Documentary Award at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, director Kristian Fraga leads viewers into the fray of an extremely heated, fascinating mayoral election in Bogota, New Jersey. Drawn to the project because it illustrates what is happening politically in our country on a much smaller level, Fraga’s digitally photographed film is at once tense, funny and ultimately heartbreaking in its tale of three unique candidates including a loud-mouthed Republican incumbent much hated by a majority of the town, an elderly Democrat brought back into politics from retirement and a young Independent hopeful who recruits Jesse Ventura’s campaign manager to help him conquer the race. We’re most drawn in by the story of the Independent but equally fascinated by all three. It’s especially intriguing that both the Republican and Independent candidates are legally blind—when health issues arise in the story of the Democrat as well, it raises questions and ethics as mud-slinging begins. The film paints an earnest portrait of the way that politics changes people but also calls attention to disability rights and issues and our governing system. The film would be the perfect choice to show to apathetic voters or high school students not sure that their vote counts—in Bogota, not only does it count, but also a whole town hangs in the balance. A wonderful little find from filmmovement.com.

Looking for Kitty

Director: Edward Burns

Since the release of his indie smash The Brothers McMullen, the career of Edward Burns has been filled with ups and downs—I’ve always been mixed on his work but found a lot to cheer about in his latest, intimate film Looking for Kitty. In the movie, Burns portrays a private detective who’s like a man from another era or at least a man from another film—doing it as he says, “the way Bogie woulda done it”-- Burns’s main character loves his city for its holdouts of old architecture and has a lot to say about his blue collar pride in the working man sticking it to the rich, his belief that he can feel bad enough about himself without the help of the Catholic church and his distrust of the current Republican administration. Needless to say, Burns is at his best when penning unique dialogue and the film is filled with it—we instantly like his character yet as an actor, he doesn’t shine quite as brightly as unlikely leading man David Krumholtz who hires Burns to track down his missing wife. The film recalls Burns’s main influence Woody Allen in its beautiful shots of New York City and jazzy score and fans of Jim Jarmusch’s moody character pieces like Broken Flowers will definitely enjoy Kitty. Note: Perhaps it’s only the DVD I rented but the closed captioning button was on accidentally and I noticed that the dialogue placed on the disc came not from Looking For Kitty but rather from another Think Film release, Down in the Valley starring Edward Norton. The only reason I knew this was because I’d recently seen the other film and recognized the modern cowboy dialogue at once. It’s an interesting but annoying flaw for those needing the captioning.

Falling Angels

Director: Scott Smith

Although based on a novel, Scott Smith’s Canadian film about a dysfunctional family in the 1960’s Cold War era (referenced in a clever tag-line as a “nuclear family”) seems to be most likely cinematically inspired by Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides. However, the film is more concerned with its eccentricities and generating a feeling than actually getting us involved in the plot. The film, erroneously described as a dark comedy, is actually a quite sad one. It seems that in retrospect, the good old days weren’t always as good or as innocent as we like to imagine. The film follows three very different sisters struggling to come of age in a pre-feminist, pre-hippie era—the eldest one tries to hold things together, the middle child is predictably the rebel and the youngest is the sweet, beautiful but most vulnerable of the lot as she falls under the spell of a creepy older man. Miranda Richardson is underused as the mentally ill mother of the girls, who, after suffering a tragedy has never fully recovered and their father overcompensates for the mother’s silence with tyranny and harsh proclamations. Above all, the film works for fans of Coppola’s work, and although it’s not in her league, its portrait of a time and place would be of interest to feminist scholars and those who enjoy the popular but overly crowded “dysfunctional family” genre.

Miss Mary

Director: Maria Luisa Bemberg
(1986)

British governess Julie Christie recalls her time spent working in a wealthy Argentinean household during 1930-1945 when the corrupt, conservative government changed after Peron’s rise to power. Slightly confusing in places as the events and flashbacks get hard to keep straight but it’s always engrossing— Bemberg throws her usual feminist overtones into the mix with soap opera melodrama for compelling results and Christie turns in another fine performance.

1/20/2007

The Rage in Placid Lake

Director: Tony McNamara


Forget Napoleon Dynamite—devotees of Garden State, Rushmore and Ghost World will love this hilarious, offbeat Australian import. Musician Ben Lee portrays title character Placid Lake who is something of a weirdo in his small community as the son of free love, granola hippies Miranda Richardson and Garry McDonald. As such, Placid finds himself the target of regular beatings in his local high school and after one harrowing incident leaves him near death after graduation, he decides, much to the horror his “Doris Day Scientist” gal pal Gemma (played by scene stealer Rose Byrne) that he will go straight, start reading Dale Carnegie and conquer the concrete jungle of corporate Australia. While he never truly escapes his fate as “an odd fish in a sea of mediocrity,” as described by filmmovement’s description of the film, we have a riot watching him find his way, trying to be all things to all people and challenge the norms of our current consumer society. The Rage in Placid Lake is a completely original blast and one true gem that American audiences (especially fans of shows like The Office and Arrested Development) are sure to enjoy.

Hop

Director: Dominique Standaert


Dominique Standaert’s neorealist film recalls the influences of past greats like Kieslowski (especially in Tom Tykwer’s film of K’s screenplay for Heaven) and de Sica (The Bicycle Thief) in his tale of a young black boy in Belgium who goes into hiding and teams up with an elderly anarchist after his illegal immigrant father is deported back to the Congo. Issues of immigration rights, racial equality and the hypocrisies of national policy are called into question and this film couldn’t be timelier to audiences in America as well. Hop was the first Belgian film to be photographed digitally and it was screened at a Lincoln Center film series for “Transcendant Realism: New and Old Cinema from Belgium”—it’s quite a showcase not only for its native country but the director as well. One is instantly aware of Standaert’s passion for humanity and the universal themes of family and equality and after doing a bit more research on him, I realized that it may be indicative of his own background living in a wide variety of places from Bombay to the United States and Rwanda. While one does have to admit that the film is a bit unbelievable and overly simplified in places (a few plot elements seem too convenient), the film is nonetheless a wholly original work that one won’t come across everyday.

Raja

Director: Jacques Doillon

While the recent Steve Martin film Shopgirl dealt in subtle ways with the problems of intellectual, emotional and economic differences in a May-December romance, Doillon’s film pulls no punches in his study of a nineteen year old Moroccan girl named Raja who becomes the object of desire of her wealthy middle-aged French employer, while working in his gardens and kitchen in Marrakech. Very emotional and complex—a good one to watch with a friend (preferably someone of another gender to study reactions) as we witness both characters using one another in secret tugs-of-war of manipulation-- yet nothing is black and white. Somewhere in the midst of their power struggles and a relationship that is “fractured by their gross disparity of income, age, and cultural sophistication,” (filmmovement.com), true feelings of love come to the surface. There are no simple solutions and one realizes that unlike the Cinderella stories (like Maid in Manhattan) that remain so popular in this country, Doillon will finally come to a conclusion that is at once heartbreaking, confusing, yet logical and true to the situation.

The Middle of the World

Director: Vicente Amorim


In this surprising Brazilian road movie, best described as a curious entry into the neorealist genre, director Amorim tells the true story of an illiterate dreamer who puts his faith in his patron saint as he journeys along with his family of seven across the desert in a six-month bicycle odyssey in the hopes of a better life in Rio de Janeiro. The risks of such an outrageously bold opus are depicted with truth and innocence as we follow the family, feeling both anger and pride in the patriarch when he refuses to settle for anything less than what he feels is the ideal salary (reminiscent thematically to the newly released Will Smith vehicle, The Pursuit of Happyness). It’s a bit frustrating at times, mostly due to its painful neorealism and while the end feels a bit hurried, it’s one journey of hope that you won’t soon forget.

1/19/2007

What I Want My Words to Do to You

Complete Title: What I Want My Words to Do to You: Voices From Inside a Women’s Maximum Security Prison
Directors: Madeline Gavin, Judith Katz and Gary Sunshine
(2003)

In this quietly gripping documentary, playwright and women’s activist Eve Ensler conducts a writing workshop at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in order to help inmates come to terms with their lives, their futures and heal. Ensler’s project ended with a performance for charity, enlisting the help of a few talented actresses to read the monologues, letters and essays that evolved from the series of exercises Ensler assigned the workshop’s participants. An important and honest film—the women manage to sadden, anger, inspire and touch us with their ideas and writings and the film succeeds on several levels. Obviously it’s an important piece from a sociological or communications perspective and an even more valuable work for women’s studies departments but more than that it proves once again the power of language, of words to heal, of writing as therapy for without knowledge we would never get to hear their stories and the words of the film's participants will indeed affect those who take the time to listen.

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (2002)

Director: Laetitia Colombani


Now Available to Own

 

 It's hard to imagine Amelie's adorable waif, Audrey Tautou going all Glenn Close Fatal Attraction but she manages to try-- not too terribly convinvingly-- for at least half of this creepy little import. The film works well on a purely film student level illustrating the subjectiveness and depection that can arise from clever editing, camera trickery and the medium of cinema. For the first portion of the film, Tautou's lovesick art student chases and satisfies every impulse in her affair with a happily married heart surgeon. In the second half of the film, the tables are turned from “she said” to “he said” and we see things from the doctor's perspective with the viewer quickly realizing Tautou is a dangerous coed cutie with an erotomaniac disorder and frightening crush on a perfect stranger. An unsettling film to be certain but it seems a bit cheap and manipulative at times and Tautou wouldn’t be my top choice to play the stalker.

Inch’Allah Dimanche (2001)



Director: Yamina Benguigi

In this excruciating nerorealistic style drama-- almost documentary like in its approach, an Algerian woman chaperoned by her cruel, domineering mother-in-law packs up her three young children and is reunited with her ex-husband, where he's been residing in France for the past ten years during the labor crisis. The heroine, a bit overly whiny in a beginning that is frankly hard to take, is well performed by Fjeria Deliba (herself a French-Algerian female filmmaker as well). It's tough to watch the gender inequality of the Muslim faith displayed in the film as Deliba's Zouina, (who honestly does act out in ways that annoy the viewer at times), nonetheless get so brutalized by her mother-in-law and husband. The director does provide some humor in the next-door neighbor characters-- racist French people obsessed by their prize-winning garden-- but it never really amounts to anything or pays off entirely to make their inclusion feel like anything other than a simple plot diversion. Secondly, there's a French female character, considerate and sympathetic towards Zouina, who encourages our heroine to stick up for herself the way she'd done, now independent and divorced. The French woman would've added wondrous support to Benguigi's film if utilized in a grander way and we long for added scenes comparing and contrasting the women's plights. All in all, a worthwhile but painful glimpse into another culture brought to audiences on DVD by filmmovement.com.

Yerma

Director: Pilar Távora
(1999)

Based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s play “Blood Wedding,” this Spanish film about a childless married woman who desperately longs for a baby in order to become what she believes is a complete woman seems a bit like a really bad Spanish soap opera when transferred to the big screen. However, when viewed with American eyes, it could be due to the anti-feminism, culture clash, the incessant female gossips and rants about childless women not being "true" women. Yerma played by Aitana Sanchez-Gijon (who viewers remember from her seductive romp in the grapes with Keanu Reeves in A Walk in the Clouds), manages to keep viewers watching due to her charisma and awe-inspiring beauty but we're so far removed from the plight that everything is kept at arm's length.

Double Happiness

Director: Mina Shum
(1995)

Just try taking your eyes off of the charismatic and dazzling Sandra Oh in this delightful coming-of-age import from Canada. Oh plays Jade, a twenty-two year-old aspiring actress who finds herself pulled into two directions by her own ambitions and her old-fashioned Chinese parents who want to see her married. Added to the equation of ill-fated matchmaking attempts and general meddling is a vulnerable, cute Caucasian man with whom Jade has had an impulsive one night stand and for whom she still feels a strong attraction. Soon she must decide which “happiness” is the right one for her and her choices make this film likable and very easy for audiences to relate to regardless of race. Shum's movie is quiet, pleasing and features a great performance by Oh, who, due to the character’s dramatic aspirations, receives plenty of opportunities to showcase her own talent that continues to dazzle in films such as Sideways and the popular Golden Globe winning series Grey's Anatomy.

The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack

Director: Aiyana Elliott
(2000)

When the filmmaker daughter of cowboy folk music’s greatest rambler, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, set out to document the life and times of her father, Aiyana Elliott found herself not only seeking biographical and historical details but answers to questions still lingering from a childhood largely spent without the presence of her father. The film consists of some amazingly fascinating yarns of life on the road with such larger than life icons as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and is padded heavily with candid concert footage and interviews with the people who knew Jack Elliott the best, earning Elliott the Special Jury Prize for Artistic Achievement at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack is a must for both fans of the music and general American history as well.

Marianne & Juliane

Director: Margarethe von Trotta
(1981)

Two sisters raised in conservative 1950’s Germany find themselves moved to help bring about political reform and save humanity in the 1970’s. What begins as political idealism and passion to bring peace changes suddenly into a serious study of the evolution of ideals when Marianne joins a terrorist group and is imprisoned after participating in a bombing. Unable to forget the closeness she and her sister felt growing up together, feminist journalist Juliane sacrifices her marriage, career and life to report the truth about Marianne and stand by her side. Margarethe von Trotta is dedicated to the subject and her tenacity and passion shine through, inspiring excellent performances by the two leads and the theme of sisterhood is examined from all angles— von Trotta trusts viewers to gather all of the facts, much like Juliane and make up their own minds but does her best as a filmmaker to move us over the course of the film.

The Doctor

Director: Randa Haines
(1991)

Randa Haines reunites with Children of a Lesser God leading man, William Hurt, for this moving, poignant film about a selfish, joking doctor who reevaluates his professionalism and the practice of medicine after being diagnosed with throat cancer. While the plot could have turned into a TV-movie-of-the-week melodrama— the humanity, anger, sadness and empathy embodied by William Hurt gives the film a sense of authenticity that causes the audience to respond strongly and Haines’s film will definitely ring true to those who have either been the victim of or know a victim of medical drama. Elizabeth Perkins lights up the screen in one of her better performances as a severe cancer patient who manages to inspire and affect Hurt during the brief time she has left. This film should be mandatory viewing in medical school.

1/17/2007

Light of My Eyes

Director: Giuseppe Piccioni

Narration has often been misused in cinema and some critics have even dared say it’s a practice best left in the dust. However, this enchanting, sad, and gorgeously mysterious film from Giuseppe Piccioni uses the literary device in a most peculiar yet appealing way, utilizing a third person science fiction narrative from a main character living in contemporary Italy without any trace of science fiction in his actual life. In this eccentric and curious love story, Antoino, a loyal chauffeur without much ambition or passion save for his love of science fiction, finds himself drawn into the lives of a struggling mother and her daughter after nearly crashing into the girl on one of his routine night drives. He narrates from the books and tales he carries with him religiously and although the events correlate indirectly, having two separate “narratives” playing concurrently (the oral one from Antonio and the visual one from the film itself) adds marvelously complex layers to the movie. Piccioni’s film won its lead actors the best actor and actress awards respectively at the Venice Film Festival and both are marvelous in difficult roles—Antonio is restrained and the mother’s anger gives the actress more of a chance to shine—one actor implodes and the other explodes in a romance that’s both painful, real, and never forced. Makes you curious about the director’s other works—although this one broke box office records in Italy and was nominated for five Donatello awards, I’m eager to track down his previous films, including his debut which earned him the honorable De Sica award back in 1987.

Carol’s Journey


Director: Imonal Uribe

Fans of The Secret Garden will feel instantly at home in this wonderful Spanish film, which finds Carol, (a twelve year old from New York City) moving back to her mother’s native Spain amidst the chaos of the country’s civil war in 1938. Exquisitely shot and told with a delicate simplicity taking into account the age of our heroine, the film is at once old-fashioned (Carol herself seems to dress and act like an homage to Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird) yet refreshing and urgent. While those without a better grasp on the political history of the era may be a tad confused by the goings on, stay with the film as Carol’s Journey is well-worth taking indeed as she experiences tragedy, first love and friendship while coming of age during such an intense period of last century’s history. The film, released in a gorgeous DVD transfer from filmmovement.com may provide young teens with the perfect opportunity to become introduced to international cinema.

Familia

Director: Louise Archambault

In this morbidly dysfunctional, depressing but painfully real Canadian work from director Louise Archambault, the idea of nature verses nurture is tested as we witness the female offspring of an extended family pass along traits and values while wondering if there is any escape from genetics or if we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. Michele, a gambling addicted aerobics instructor loses her job and man in one fell swoop and packs off her teenaged daughter Marguerite for an impromptu road trip, hoping to crash with relatives until finally finding a roof over their heads with a childhood friend. Unlike the similarly themed mother/daughter road trip film Tumbleweeds, wherein the flaws of the mother made her more realistic and endearing to our hearts, we really dislike our leading lady in Familia. Not only is she a bleak train wreck, bogging down her daughter and everyone with whom she comes into contact but her story gets more depressing yet predictable as it carries on. Although watching Michele drag down Marguerite in the process causes our hearts to go out to the younger girls in the film as they deal with the painful realities of partying and teenage life in contemporary society. However, there is a strong point in Familia, in the story of Janine, the childhood friend who grudgingly lets Michele and her daughter stay with them. Janine is as poised and controlling as Michele is freewheeling and oblivious—we find ourselves bonding with Janine as one of the few sane characters. A bored housewife whose only joy seems to come from her children and work as an interior designer, Janine finds her world turned upside down not only by the new arrivals but also with the realization that her frequently absent husband may have a steady extracurricular relationship of his own. Janine sets out to learn more and her quest is heartbreaking, true and keeps us glued to the film. The ending of the piece is a bit rushed with both the adult women and their daughters reaching a new phase in their lives and more time should be spent for it to better pay off—we’re not buying Michele’s change for a second but Janine’s seems natural and well-deserved. All in all, despite the flaws, worth taking a look at in order to gain an impression of what a cinematic dysfunctional family movie (currently the biggest trend in American cinema) looks like in the land to the north.

Campfire

Director: Joseph Cedar

Campfire earned five Israeli Academy Awards, which caused Israel to name it the official selection for consideration in the 2005 Best Foreign Film category of our own Academy Awards. In this winningly heartfelt little gem, widowed matriarch Rachel Gerlik struggles to raise her two teenage daughters and receive acceptance into a new West Bank settlement. However, as the family consists of only a trio of women, without a man looking out for them, the Gerliks have become outcasts in their community and the situation is worsened when something unfortunate befalls the youngest daughter and they are the subject of cruelly erroneous slander and graffiti. Amidst the community preparing for the new settlement, an acquaintance of Rachel’s begins setting her up with eligible men to remedy the lack of a masculine presence in the household and she begins an awkwardly adorable courtship with Yossi, a lonely older virginal, bus driving bachelor. Rachel and Yossi’s scenes together provide the film with some gentle humor and charm and luckily, this remarkable film has finally been released here in the states through filmmovement.com where I can only hope it will gain a new fan base.

Wolves in the Snow



Director: Michel Welterlin

Described by Le Monde as “a contemporary ‘Roman Noir’ painted with the colors of Quebec,” this Canadian crime drama starts out with a marital fight that ends in a crime of passion with our heroine Lucie’s husband Antoine dead. Once the first crime is committed, shockingly and quickly, a series of lies and deceptions follow as Lucie uncovers that the publishing house her husband ran was really a front for an Italian organized crime family and money laundering schemes. Unfortunately for Lucie, when Antoine died, a bag of money disappeared as well and for the rest of the film she finds herself caught up in their world of gangsters and double crosses. The brief film is tense and satisfying, however we long for more insight into the character of Lucie, as she’s our link and guide through the maze of the criminal underworld. It’s a bit improbable that more than one gangster would become bewitched by Lucie so there’s a certain amount of disbelief we must suspend as the film rushes along towards its final showdown, which, as in the Hong Kong films of John Woo, ends with guns being drawn from all directions and with numerous sub-groups. Still, very worthwhile-- how often do you see a mob movie from Canada with French subtitles?

The Party's Over

aka Last Party 2000
Directors: Donovan Leitch & Rebecca Chaiklin
The Party's Over

Actor and concerned Liberal, Philip Seymour Hoffman leads viewers on a tour of the 2000 election, visiting the Democrat and Republican conventions, chatting with celebrities, politicians and anybody willing from all walks of life about U.S. politics and just what exactly is going wrong with government policies today. While definitely slanted to the left, the film is angry, fascinating and filled with worthwhile information not solely edited together in an overly propagandist way a la Michael Moore, however while Hoffman is an amiable everyman, he doesn’t get as completely fired up enough to engage the viewer to participate more than just with casual interest. Ironic that the most infamous election of the past few years selected and documented by Chaiklin and Leitch (who filmed the similarly themed Last Party with Robert Downey Jr.)—it makes an interesting document of a time and place and the DVD is packed with worthwhile features.

1/16/2007

Conversations With Other Women

Director: Hans Canosa

First time screenwriter Gabrielle Zevin earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her addicting and eccentric romance involving two people (named only Man and Woman) who meet at a wedding and then disappear upstairs for what one assumes will simply be a one-night stand.

As the conversation continues between the leads (wonderfully played by Helena Bonham Carter and the always underrated Aaron Eckhart), we begin to realize that the man and woman have a history. Visually arresting and cinematically daring, director Hans Canosa opts to depict the action in a split screen that lasts throughout the film.

While it begins as a sort of “his” and “hers” illustration of the events unfolding, it also becomes an extra window into other characters, the past, possible futures, and one begins to wonder what is real and what is perceived. The sleeper of a film, which earned a Special Jury Prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival, can be viewed as a sort of darker companion piece to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset

Yet to me, Conversations seems more internationally influenced by the New Wave—by Rohmer and especially Last Year at Marienbad (although this work is much more accessible and less frustrating on viewer’s minds). Short, thoughtful and well worth tracking down—don’t miss it, if you’re a fan of romantic stories that unfold in a nontraditional way.

Who’s Camus Anyway?



Director: Mitsuo Yanagimachi

The brains of film geeks everywhere will be working overtime while watching Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s clever work concerning the chaos involved in the production of a student film at a university in Tokyo. During the making of the piece, titled The Bored Murderer, students fight, fall in love and discuss life and film in a series of intriguing scenes that call to mind many other films to which this work is paying homage. Within the first five minutes, audiences may already be thinking (as is noted in the dialogue) of Altman’s The Player, Welles’s Touch of Evil and Truffaut’s Day for Night. While this film is nowhere near as good as the previous works and it’s a bit hard to keep some of the large cast of characters straight since they’re all introduced far too quickly, it’s fun in its own way and plays better if you’re familiar not only with cinema but Camus as well. One annoying aspect is the horrible translation of the subtitles—film buffs will instantly grow weary at the misspellings of some of the cinematic references but then again, spellings aside, since it is a foreign film, Who’s Camus Anyway may warrant two viewings since those busy reading the fast dialogue the first time around may wish to check it out again to see the homage to the numerous movies they may have missed the first time around.


Spare Parts

Director: Damjan Kozole

In this brief but tense film (running around 85 minutes), former motorbike racer Ludvik spends his evenings smuggling illegal refugees from Croatia, across Slovenia and into Italy. When he takes on Rudi, a naïve newcomer and former fan from his racing days, the transportation of refugees begins to grow a bit more complicated as moral questions are raised in the treatment of the human cargo. Some people don’t survive the trip, some of Ludvik’s associates take advantage of the women and danger lurks at every turn as Ludvik informs his protégée that some of the immigrants smuggled into Italy end up drugged, killed and then mined as “spare parts” for medical usage. The film has much to say about the European union and is especially timely when viewed in America where border isses and immigration rights are currently on the front burner of American politics. The director is careful never to choose sides—to show both the despicable acts and the good achieved by the main characters and all points of view are shown. Environmental metaphors abound as well as the two main characters spend each day threatened by cancer fears (and indeed Ludvik has a recurring case) as, according to filmmovement, they “live in a rundown town, home to the only nuclear power plant in the former Yugoslavia.” The film is a tough one to watch but quite important, brave and one you won’t be able to shake for days afterward.

Oscar and Lucinda

Director: Gillian Armstrong
(1997)

Based on Peter Carey’s novel about two dreamers drawn to each other’s intensity and passion for gambling, Gillian Armstrong’s exquisitely photographed film version will both seduce you and break your heart all at the same time. To prove his love for Cate Blanchett in the grandest way possible, Ralph Fiennes impulsively bets her that he can transport a magnificent church made entirely of glass to where he believes his rival for her heart is staying. Cate Blanchett is strong willed, fiery and simply sublime as the headstrong businesswoman, playing the role usually given to the men in love stories and Fiennes is unforgettable in his change-of-pace portrayal as the vulnerable man of God who hopes to win her heart by sacrificing everything in the process. Very romantic, sad and touching— it’s a daring film and one of Armstrong’s cinematic treasures.

What’s Cooking?

Director: Gurinder Chadha
(2000)

Four ethnically diverse extended Los Angeles families gather with friends and lovers to celebrate Thanksgiving in this uniquely moving film from Gurinder Chadha. The director covers many different topics leaving no issue unquestioned but somehow Chadha weaves everything together deftly by going back and forth much like a chef between the various family gatherings, using one situation to comment on another, one to echo something else, all the while leaving the viewer piecing things together in their mind, dazzled by the food and conversation. There are several excellent performances, most notably by Kyra Sedgwick and Mercedes Ruehl. Funny, surprising and true— destined to be a sleeper hit.

Hester Street

Director: Joan Micklin Silver
(1975)

Joan Micklin Silver’s intriguing, feminist film set in an unlikely feminist time—1896—helped launch not only her career as one of America’s most important female writer/directors but also made a star of lead actress Carol Kane. Kane steals our hearts as the simple, kind Jewish wife and mother who comes to America to reunite with her husband and finds he’s fully embraced his new country by changing his name to sound more Gentile, working in a sweatshop, visiting prostitutes and dancing with young, beautiful women. Embarrassed by his former culture and deeply religious wife, Jake (Steven Keats) all but ignores Kane, making sure she stays in the apartment while he lives his life but Kane manages to succeed in the end, declaring her independence and finding her own place in the new land as well. The film’s black and white cinematography and use of subtitles add to its authentic feel and viewers get lost in Silver’s world—while it’s a bit slow going at first, her film wins us over largely due to its old fashioned feel—we realize the intelligence of our writer/director when we come to understand that she’s filming in a way that makes it feel like a “found” film from 1896. While this one may be hard to track down, feminists and film buffs alike will find it worth the effort.

1/15/2007

Buddy

Director: Morten Tyldum

The only less than charming feature this addicting Norwegian import contains would be its unoriginal name. The film, which played at film festivals around the globe (winning several audience awards), concerns three roommates who find their home movies of daily life and stunts catching the eye of a big Norwegian television show. Soon, they become new reality television stars and unlike reality television in this country wherein average folks seem thrilled to do something—anything (even eating bugs)-- to make it to prime time, Tyldum’s film seems more honest and candid by showing the plusses and minuses of instant celebrity in a very earnest portrayal that never once paints the blame solely on the station or on Kristoffer, the enterprising young man whose tapes are used. Far more engaging than reality television themed American film EdTV, Buddy benefits from some endearing characters, most notably the heartbreaking story of Kristoffer’s roommate Stig Inge, a man paralyzed by fear of leaving his tiny community and coming to grips with the idea that he has become a public figure, which raises ethical questions about disability, voyeurism and the morality of humor in these circumstances and it's all handled expertly by both the director and writer Lars Gudmestad, both of whom have a background in television. Above all, Tyldum considers his film not to be simply a comment on reality television but as he told the filmmovement site (which carries the film), Buddy is “a romantic comedy about daring to be honest… even if your dream comes true, it doesn’t necessarily make you happy,” and the film will strike a chord as we watch twenty-somethings learn they must grow up and take responsibility for their new lives as adults.

Merci Pour le Chocolat

Director: Claude Chabrol

Claude Chabrol is no stranger to mysteries and the suspenseful inner lives of seemingly ordinary people-- he’s fascinated by secrecy and betrayal and haunted by the past. In his forty-eighth feature film, Isabelle Huppert (who by now has cornered the market on playing scary, perverse dames) plays a Swiss chocolate manufacturing heiress whose marriage to pianist Andre and idle life in the countryside with her slacker stepson is interrupted by the arrival of another young woman who may indeed be her husband’s daughter after a hospital mix-up. The fact that the woman is a pianist and has an eerie resemblance to Andre’s former deceased wife is enough to keep viewer’s interests in check after an admittedly confusing and badly produced introduction at the wedding when several characters and conversations occur simultaneously. Instead of being an homage to Altman, all of this rapid fire overlapping information gets lost in the shuffle after the credits which finds us being introduced to four new and seemingly unrelated characters. However, stay with the film as it does begin to all come together and earlier confusion gets cleared up by careful plotting and performances, especially in flashbacks and visual repetitions echoed in dialogue (although you may find yourself watching the opening a second time after it’s over). The film clocks in at roughly an hour and a half and the time flies by as situations grow more tense. Note: while the ending is purely and creepily quintessential Chabrol and quite haunting, it does lack a certain closure that will frustrate some American audiences as it respects our intelligence enough to force us to fill in the blanks and leap to a definite conclusion on our own.