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by Bill Chambers It's tempting to say that pop already ate itself, leaving a vast wasteland of remakes and reboots that can't possibly be fertile enough to cultivate imaginations; I sometimes lie awake worrying that one day all we'll be left with is the vultures and their Jane Austen mashups, their homemade Lord of the Rings prequels and Sweded Rambo movies. Should such a Doomsday scenario come to pass, let's hope it occasionally yields something as whimsical and obviously heartfelt as France's The Little Dragon (Le petit dragon) (animated; d. Bruno Collet; 8 mins.; ***/****), in which a magical force brings a Bruce Lee action figure to life, seemingly with the legend's identity, if not his soul, intact, as it is his impulse upon encountering a Chuck Norris cut-out to kick it down. (He also recognizes his name and image on other collectibles.) Decked out in his yellow Game of Death jumpsuit, he navigates a maze of cobweb-strewn movie memorabilia that appears to be some Harry Knowles type's bedroom; in a moment of quintessentially French cinephilia, Bruce, having been passed the torch (the Statue of Liberty torch from a Planet of the Apes model kit, that is), stumbles on a makeshift crypt lined with dolls of Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Louise Brooks, Robert Mitchum, and, erm, Robert Taylor. The stop-motion animation is charming--this scrappy little guy may actually be the ne plus ultra of Lee imitators, who are of course legion--and the tone is deceptively irreverent. This is fan art, executed with gusto--but does it have a function? Collet could be the next Nick Park--but is he hurting for inspiration?
***½/**** starring Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golan, Brynie Furstenberg, Lenny Ravich written by Ariel Cohen directed by Doron Paz & Yoav Paz
by Walter Chaw Hanna (Hani Furstenberg, The Loneliest Planet) is listening in while a council of elders gives her husband Benjamin (Ishai Golan) the option of leaving her for being unable to provide a son for years after the loss of their child. It's 1673 Lithuania. There's a plague, so there's a lot of death, and there's palpable fear in the air. Fear, among the other things it attracts, is irresistible to religion, and one day in this small Jewish community in the middle of a wilderness, the villagers discover that the plague has returned to the countryside and is encroaching on their isolation. Naturally, they retreat into religion. Ted Chiang has a short story called "The Seventy-Two Letters". It takes Hebrew mythology and wonders what it would be like if religion were treated as science. (And maybe, you know, it is.) The seventy-two letters are the name of God. You write them on a small piece of paper and roll that tightly into a little scroll. Insert it in the mouth of a mud effigy to infuse it with life. What materializes is a guardian, a protector, a golem that can be guided to the extent your id can be guided. Dario Argento played with a version of this in Phenomena; George Romero did, too, with Monkey Shines. The Golem is the true fana.
Knafayim Shvurot ***½/**** Image A- Sound A starring Orly Silbersatz-Banai, Maya Maron, Nitai Gaviratz, Vladimir Friedman written and directed by Nir Bergman
by Walter Chaw Israeli filmmaker Nir Bergman's Broken Wings (Knafayim Shvurot) is a film about the intricacies of a family implosion told in the minimal, spare, largely unsentimental fashion of a Mike Leigh picture, managing to relay its tale uncorrupted by the Israeli-Palestinian issue and, in Bergman's discretion, making a stronger statement about the mad choreography of war by personalizing the victims on its periphery. It separates itself from Leigh (and another headwater, Ken Loach) with a few scenes of carefully-constructed mise-en-scène that locate Bergman as a fan of the magical possibilities of cinema--and establish Broken Wings as a picture that challenges the post-modern idea that emotional truth can't be achieved without the trappings of handheld vérité.
El Abrazo partido */**** starring Daniel Hendler, Adriana Aizemberg, Jorge D'Elía, Sergio Boris screenplay by Marcelo Birmajer, Daniel Burman directed by Daniel Burman
Hard Goodbyes: My Father Diskoli apocheretismi: O babas mou ***/**** starring Yorgos Karayannis, Stelios Mainas, Ioanna Tsirigouli, Christos Stergioglou written and directed by Penny Panayotopoulou
WALK ON WATER **/**** starring Lior Ashkenazi, Knut Berger, Caroline Peters, Gideon Shemer screenplay by Gal Uchovsky directed by Eytan Fox
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Woody Allen's been on something like a two-decade slide, so if there's a little voice in your head telling you that the last thing you need to see is an Argentine version of a Woody Allen "where's daddy" neurosis opera: listen to it. Daniel Burman's Lost Embrace (El Abrazo partido) is an interminable slog through the congested headspace of one Ariel Makaroff (Daniel Hendler), an insufferable, navel-gazing Pol expat living out his self-loathing strut and fret in the ridiculous family lingerie shop of a cut-rate shopping centre. (Yeah, it's Scenes from a Mall in Spanish.) Burman likes breaking the fourth wall, likes humourless inter-titles that separate his film into a dozen awkward sketches, and really likes dense monologues about, essentially, why no one is ever happy. The extent to which you will cotton to Lost Embrace has a lot to do with how much you enjoy wallpaper narration and old Jewish-Polish grandmothers singing homey folk songs square to the camera--how much you delight in Jewish mothers nudzhing their schlemiel sons before divesting their aggressively middle-class closets of ancient infidelities set against intra-mall flings with an Internet café bimbo. Ennui, listlessness, and gab gab gab, Lost Embrace earns the occasional moment of interest or topicality in stuff like a semi-amusing interview Ariel endures before the Polish consulate (during which he expresses admiration for the recently-deceased Polish Pope), but the film spends most of its goodwill on masturbating with a furious, chafing intensity. Oh, and it's mawkishly sentimental, too.
February 10, 2008|Eran Kolirin strikes a modest figure. Maybe it was the illness: exhausted from a cross-country junket to promote the stateside release of his ebullient and in many ways extraordinary feature debut The Band's Visit (and sick besides), Mr. Kolirin met with me at Cherry Creek's Zaidy's Restaurant--home to the best matzo ball soup in Denver--over a bowl of what he referred to as a little Jewish remedy for the bug he'd been fighting on his tour. As we ate, I realized that what preparatory notes I'd made were all but useless. Though The Band's Visit is almost the definition of a political film (Israelis and Egyptians, oh my), Mr. Kolirin steadfastly avoided a discussion of his new role as focal point for the Middle East conversation--and when I asked him who he was rooting for in the upcoming American election (this was the day after Super Tuesday in the U.S. and I was fresh from listening to an NPR report on how Israel and Egypt were viewing the festivities), he said, "I don't have any idea." I began to wonder if this reticence wasn't more reluctance than indifference: as an aside, almost, at one pointed he volunteered that "Bush, yes, is quite fucked up."
FREE ZONE */**** Image C- Sound B Extras F starring Natalie Portman, Hanna Laslo, Hiam Abbass written and directed by Amos Gitai
THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS *½/**** Image A- Sound B+ starring Sarah Polley, Tim Robbins, Javier Cámara, Julie Christie written and directed by Isabel Coixet
by Walter Chaw The not-at-all-hamfisted allegory of an Israeli woman and a Palestinian woman trekking across the disputed land to find an American who will settle some non-specific debt, Amos Gitai's tediously strident Free Zone opens with ten minutes, uninterrupted, of Natalie Portman weeping over what we discover to be the end of a love affair. It's showy and about as subtle as a kidney-punch--ditto the conception of Portman's passive Rebecca (Portman), the American on the sidelines, a matinee-beautiful beacon who stands by as impassively as Milton's God. That said, the device of a long, car-bound road trip narrated by flashbacks of the protagonists' separate journeys to this journey is, at least for a while, intoxicating. The problem--and it's a doozy--is that Gitai's picture is so blatant an allegory that nothing any of the characters say comes free of dramatic distance or irony, making it impossible to take the film seriously as anything other than ventriloquism for Gitai's, let's face it, unsurprising politics. Nothing wrong with Wailing Wall lamentations about the state of the world, but watching someone shake a fist at a dead horse, long past the hope of resurrection, for upwards of two hours, is tiring and futile. Is there traction in proposing that the film merely mirrors the hopelessness of the Middle East conflict? I guess, but then how many people--specifically, how many people renting a film called Free Zone directed by Amos Gitai--are going to feel edified by that?
by Bill Chambers Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing is devastating because it doesn't offer any moral opposition to the glibly boastful first-hand accounts of Indonesian death squads; and his The Look of Silence is devastating because it does. A B-side to The Act of Killing but no mere Blue in the Face afterthought, The Look of Silence follows Adi, a 44-year-old door-to-door optometrist whose senile father is 103 and whose mother improbably claims to be around the same age. The father has forgotten but the mother has not that Adi was preceded by a brother, Ramli, who was killed during the "communist" purge (the picture reiterates that anyone who didn't immediately fall in line with the military dictatorship was tarred with the same brush, regardless of political or religious affiliation)--though "killed" somehow undersells his execution, a two-day ordeal that culminated in Ramli's castration. Adi watches Oppenheimer's footage of the murderers describing his brother's death in that animated, kids-playing way familiar from The Act of Killing, though these are not the same two "actors" who appeared in that film, underscoring that a desensitization to the atrocities committed has happened on a national, not individual, scale.
And of course I agree. The bar of Denver eatery Panzano is low-hung with a thin haze of "cool" (not to be confused with "stale" or "seedy") second-hand smoke, the sort of atmosphere romanticized by noir and one where I feel curiously out-of-time. A gauzy pre-spring Colorado day obliges by shooting shafts of sunlight cathedral-like through the particulate pollution, reminding of a scene in Nir Bergman's debut Broken Wings (Knafayim Shvurot) in which a depressed teen ponders the worlds-upon-worlds of dust motes in perpetual Brownian motion.
Bikur Ha-Tizmoret ***½/**** starring Shlomi Avraham, Saleh Bakri, Ronit Elkabetz, Sasson Gabai written and directed by Eran Kolirin
by Walter Chaw I've been reading a lot of Thomas Friedman lately, mostly because I have glaring, embarrassing gaps in my education and popular, contemporary scholarship about our Middle East imbroglio is chief among them. I've read a good bit on The Crusades and on the wars we've waged during the two Bush administrations; what I haven't read is any extensive insight into the psyche of the Arab Street. Where better to start than through the erudition of a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner? I approached Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit in a different way, I realize, than I would have prior to my dip into Friedman's headspace--and was gratified, as I seldom have been, by how a juncture in my interests resulted in what could only be a richer film experience. The Band's Visit is already remarkable for its sensitivity and patience, but knowing a little of the tragic intractability of Israeli/Arab relations lends it an implacable weight of sorrow. I'm convinced that there's already a latent melancholy in the picture, but armed with just a gloss of Camp David, the Israeli/Egyptian conflict, suddenly all of the picture's travails--being shut out of the Cairo film festival and, at the last minute, the Abu Dhabi fest as well--take on this terrible weight of irony and hopelessness. Without showing anybody coming over to "the other side," as it were, The Band's Visit is about communication, understanding, and acceptance, its characters united in their difference in the quest for the indefinable sublime. It's the best kind of political film in that it's a work, without pretension, of essential humanity--and the best kind of sentimental film in that it earns its sentiment.
Just a couple of weeks after I caught writer-director Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado's Big Bad Wolves at the 4th Mile High Horror Film Festival, Quentin Tarantino, having seen it himself at the Busan International Film Festival, declared it to be his favourite movie of 2013. Turns out QT screening the picture at a South Korean event represents a special kind of synchronicity, given that both he and South Korea's fulsome genre cinema were key influences on Kehsales & Papushado. Seeing both of Keshales and Papushado's films when I did (before I got a chance to screen Big Bad Wolves, I was inspired by the buzz on it to track down their 2010 debut, Rabies) felt like a bit of synchronicity in itself--or, at least, I felt lucky that I was able to catch this wave right at the moment that it crests and heads to shore. When I reached out to Mr. Keshales to see if he might be interested in an interview, he was quick to agree and then, over missed connections, a miscommunication about time zones (8 p.m. in Israel is 11 a.m. in Colorado, go figure), a bad Skype link, a newly-purchased cell-mike still package-fresh, and finally a cell call from a street in Israel (where Papushado almost got creamed by a car) to a suburb in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, I was able to chat at last with Keshales and Papushado: the faces--the only ones, as it happens--of Israeli horror and a new day dawning in Israeli cinema.
THE WAR WITHIN **/**** starring Ayad Akhtar, Firdous Bamji, Nandana Sen, Sarita Choudhury
screenplay by Ayad Akhtar, Joseph Castelo, Tom Glynn
directed by Joseph Castelo
PARADISE NOW ***/**** starring Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman, Lubna Azabal, Amer Hlehel
screenplay by Hany Abu-Assad, Bero Beyer, Pierre Hodgson
directed by Hany Abu-Assad
by Walter Chaw Two films, one by New Jersey filmmaker Joseph Castelo, the other by
Palestinian lenser Hany Abu-Assad, begin to make inroads into what is
perhaps the most inscrutable phenomenon of the so-called War on Terror:
suicide bombing. They're important films, I think, mostly because
suicide bombers, like the Japanese Kamikaze pilots of WWII, make it
easier to generalize and dehumanize/demonize the enemy as faceless
zealots. Every manned car-bomb, every explosives-strapped martyr,
creates ideological schisms on either side--more so and deeper, I'd
offer, than conventional missiles or rifle shells do, because here
we're striking at the very heart of the way we perceive life and the
afterlife: holiness and sin, valour and cowardice. If there's ever to
be some sort of olive branch in this millennia-old conflict, it has to
start with an agreement not only to recognize the humanity beneath the
atrocities committed by both sides in the name of defending home and
hearth, but also to admit that centuries-old texts about the
supernatural are piss-poor signposts pointing the light of right
***/**** starring Tzahi Grad, Llor Ashkenazi, Rotem Keinan, Dov Glickman written and directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado
by Walter Chaw A winning, stylish mixture of black humour,
perversion, and character study, Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado's Big
Bad Wolves presents a popular moral quandary in a way that would make Park
Chan-wook proud. Indeed, it would fit comfortably in a conversation with that
director's "Vengeance Trilogy" as a companion piece in theme, even
execution, to Sympathy for Lady Vengeance that finds a father and a
rogue police officer brutally torturing an unassuming schoolteacher because
they both suspect he's responsible for the death of a little girl. With
the question of guilt beside the point, the real thrust of the piece is the
toll that some actions take on the soul, no matter why they're undertaken.
Crucially, it's not a product of the United States or South Korea, two cultures
married to a specific kind of morally relativistic nightmare that have produced films
like this for years, but of an Israeli movie industry that marks this as only
their second "horror" release. (The first, incidentally, was a product of this same writing-directing team: 2010's Kalavet.) For an Israeli thriller to tackle the issue of the zero sum game of rendition and torture
without due process feels dangerous--particularly with the ancillary
character of an Arab man on horseback who is wry, handsome, and utterly normal, nay, the only normal one in the entire film.
(Hearat Shulayim) ***/**** starring Shlomo Bar-Aba, Lior Ashkenazi written and directed by Joseph Cedar
Joseph Cedar's Footnote (Hearat Shulayim) begins with what looks like a son's loving tribute to his intellectual origins. Rising to accept his invitation to the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities, slick Talmud scholar Uriel Scholnik (Lior Ashkenazi) waxes reverent about the professional example set by his uncompromising father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba), himself a Talmud scholar who spent the better part of his adult years toiling away on textual variants observed in microfiche while his son cut his teeth on high theory. We stay tight on Eliezer, his head bowed and his mouth locked in a grimace, as his son tells an anecdote about a survey he had to fill out as a primary student, identifying his father's profession. "Say that I'm a teacher," the younger Scholnik recalls Eliezer saying, portraying a man at once too modest to own up to his repute as a philologist and fixated on the pedagogical value of his work--an obsession Uriel claims to have happily inherited.