Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rolling Family (2004) ****

This rough-hewn Argentinean import is a slaphappy hybrid of Little Miss Sunshine and The Wages of Fear. Delightfully goofy from start to finish, the film chronicles an ill advised road trip of 1200 misadventure-filled kilometers from Buenos Aires to the remote hinterlands of Misiones. Family matriarch Emilia (Graciana Chironi), an 83 year-old drama queen, has received an invitation to a family wedding where she is to be maid of honor. Wishing to see her birthplace one more time, she summons her daughters and in-laws and grandchildren, who all enthusiastically agree to accompany her.

This loving, close-knit family is not only prone to hysterics; they are also appallingly cheap. Son-in-law Matias (Nicholas Lopez) just happens to have a home made camper, built on a 1958 Chevy pick-up truck, and before long a dozen energetic members of Emilia’s extended family cram into the rusting heap until every sloppy weld and hastily applied rivet threatens to rupture. Amid a toxic cloud of exhaust fumes, the sagging contraption sets out on the highway, where a strange and wacky world of exotic scenery, family bickering and dreadful humidity await it.

The idea of seeing Argentina from a Chevrolet soon begins to lose its luster, as old Emilia intersperses her periods of aggressive bossiness with fits of self pity and occasional imaginary heart attacks. As the driver, Matias labors to maintain the illusion that he is in charge of the situation, but the rivers of sweat cascading down his paunchy belly tell us otherwise. Meanwhile back in the camper, all manner of maladies beset the brood, including toothaches, squalling babies, lost puppies and pubescent cousins discovering the secret joys of sexual exploration. And other issues arise, including the expected ones from taking an overburdened, 50 year-old vehicle on a long trip into the steamy jungle.

Shot documentary style, the film appears to have been loosely scripted with plenty of room for improvisation. Director Pablo Trapero scores big with this approach. He captures the family’s complex emotional layers and makes them feel like genuine products from decades of shared history. It doesn’t hurt that he had the courage to cast family members and other non-professionals in key roles, and the risk paid off. The production’s lack of polish infuses every scene with a slight off-kilter dynamic that somehow manages to be both deeply familiar and strangely intriguing.

Those of us who have taken the occasional family road trip from hell will know all too well the daffy plight of Rolling Family, and revel in its unique silliness. And while we wouldn’t want to take part in such a cockeyed journey, we have to admire this family’s resilience and determination to not be undone by their self-inflicted fallacies and foibles.


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Friday, October 22, 2010

Roads to Koktebel (2003)**

If you’re one of those people who’s feeling a little too happy these days - and overcome with guilt about it - you may want to check out this Russian import; a crabby, sour film guaranteed to bring you back down to the emotional dumps. For a touch over 90 minutes we get to watch a father (Igor Chernavitch ) and his 11 year old son (Gleb Puskapalis ) trudge through black mud, subsist on rotten apples, perform menial jobs for mentally unbalanced individuals and generally wallow in a state of sullen numbness. And if that’s not depressing enough, for much of the film it’s raining.

Our heroes are ostensibly heading to a resort area on the Black Sea, but financial hardship has forced to pair to make their way on foot and leap hobo-style onto passing freight trains. Over countless miles of barren farmland they travel, and with each grind of the train wheels the son becomes more disillusioned and impatient. But the Dad, a former aerospace engineer laid low by his love for vodka, is in no hurry. Along the way he dawdles with a roofing job on a rickety dacha, and then finds the rural clinic of a lonely female doctor with a seductive bedside manner (Vera Sandrykina ) just too therapeutic to leave.

Boris Klebinov and Alexei Popogrebsky are billed as co-writers and co-directors – creating a film this depressing would just be too much for one person – and they prove their mastery at capturing bleak environments. The grey skies and bare trees are rendered with a chilling dankness that seeps into the viewer’s bones. But the film offers no relief from the brutal wintry textures and very little in the way of character development. Things start off bleakly for the father and son, then proceed to get steadily worse.

Early on, the directors take great pains to establish the boy’s special ability to visualize landscapes from an aerial perspective. But this intriguing bit of mysticism is never really advanced and is eventually abandoned for a more generic flight motif, as the boy becomes fascinated with the gliding ability of the albatross. Whenever things get dull, which is often, Klebinov and Popogrebsky drag out this tired metaphor and the son begins to daydream about seabirds and rising air currents. And audiences begin to dream about the film mercifully ending.

Great films have been made from minimalist materials, but Roads to Koktebel is not one of them. And if the unrelenting dreariness isn’t bad enough, the film’s coda features a shocking and thoroughly unnecessary act of animal cruelty, as the filmmakers continue to sell their ham-fisted character motivations long after we’ve stopped buying. Here Klebinov and Popogrebsky have hit the trifecta; their film manages to bore, depress and ultimately disgust.


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Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Man From the Embassy (2007)****

Burghart Klaussner, who you may remember as the stern, icy preacher from Haneke’s The White Ribbon, shows a softer, more vulnerable side in this quietly haunting character study. Klaussner carries the film on his broad, stocky shoulders and, despite the burden, creates a richly complex character that somehow becomes more interesting and intriguing the more we learn about him.

Klaussner plays Herbert, a career German diplomat, who finds himself stationed in Tbilisi, Georgia – a seedy town that, at least in this film, resembles Gary, Indiana surrounded by the scenic beauty of Colorado. Herbert spends his days attending rinky-dink, hastily arranged cultural events followed by numbingly dull meetings in an attempt to broker a foreign aid loan to Georgia from the World Bank. His one enjoyment consists of daily trips to Tbilisi’s bustling farmer’s market, where he scrutinizes apples and carrots with the intensity of an appraiser of priceless antiques.

Herbert may be a man of the world, but he seems oddly disconnected from it. In his lonely apartment, he goes through the rituals of a confirmed bachelor – outside shoes kicked off immediately upon arrival and neatly placed on a mat by the door, evenings spent on the sofa immersed in video games and secret visits from a married coworker for a bit of impromptu and meaningless sex. Safe in his ordered warren, Herbert remains aloof from the hustlers and hooligans who roam the rough-edged streets below.

At the market one day, Herbert is victimized by a clumsy young pickpocket, a 12 year-old tomboy named Sashka (Lika Martinova). While the crime is quickly foiled, Herbert’s reaction is more curiosity than outrage. Slowly he begins to feel a sense of connection with this at-risk ragamuffin, whose home life consists of a squalid hovel populated by junkies and prostitutes. Herbert’s protective instincts emerge and soon the confused and reluctant Sashka is brought into his home as a virtual ward, where Herbert dutifully leaves breakfast and clean clothes out for her every morning prior to departing for work.

But this film is no revamp of The Blind Side or My Fair Lady, as director Dito Tsintsadze refrains from spelling out the exact terms of this unusual relationship. Despite the intimacy we feel with Klaussner’s character, it is difficult to say that we actually know him. As he and Martinova interact in increasingly casual ways, a tension begins to fill the cloistered air of Herbert’s flat, as if one misstep could lead to tragic results. When the neighbors – and a couple of corrupt cops- begin unsavory speculation as to just what is going on, there are times when the audience naggingly wonders as well.

Tsintsadze establishes his thesis of characters at a crossroads with such impressive subtlety it only become apparent at the film’s conclusion. Sashka is ready to leave childish things behind and become a beautiful young woman, while Herbert is questioning the value of his life’s work. After years of exercising his do-gooder impulses on a macro level, with unsatisfying results, he has decided to intervene directly in an individual’s life as a self appointed force for good. While his motives may be laudable, Herbert has much to learn and many instinctual snares to untangle, while young Sashka is faced with a dauntingly complex emotional puzzle. A puzzle that, like Herbert’s video game, can bewilder and torment even the most experienced player.


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Friday, October 15, 2010

Advise and Consent (1962)****

Advise and Consent is a film that takes itself, its subject and its audience very seriously. It purports to show the backroom wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the august façade of the US Senate, back when that institution was relevant, before it was taken over by its current batch of lobbyist toadies. The film features an extraordinary cast, including some of Hollywood’s most popular leading men (Walter Pidgeon, Henry Fonda, and Charles Laughton), sprinkled liberally with the best of the B list (Franchot Tone, Lew Ayres, and a chillingly unbalanced Burgess Meredith). Even young Betty White gets into the act and her turn as a spunky Senator from Kansas is brief, but she milks every drop out of the scene.

Filmed on location in Washington DC, the film’s stagings have the tingle of authenticity, and in many ways lift the picture beyond the realm of a typical Poli-Noir potboiler. The actual Senate chamber is utilized in a few scenes, as well as the underground capital trolley, which seems to be the venue where most of the deal making is actually done - the Senators comically crowded onto the trams like an outsized golfing party too cheap to spring for a second cart. The unglamorous surroundings incite other moments of accidental humor. The sight of elegant Walter Pidgeon carrying a cafeteria tray seems cosmically wrong, like an image of Fred Astair in boxer shorts chugging a beer.

But that is the film’s only hint of lightness, as director Otto Preminger makes it quite clear that writing the nation’s laws is a grim and, as the idealistic Senator from Utah (Don Murray) is about to find out, destructive business. When the ailing POTUS (Franchot Tone) nominates an ivory tower egghead (Henry Fonda) for Secretary of State, the majority leader (Pidgeon) knows he is in for a one hell of a confirmation fight. The nomination does not sit well with Dixiecrat Senator Cooley (the delightfully smarmy Laughton), who busies himself digging up all manner of embarrassing detail from Fonda’s younger days. Despite Fonda’s flag-draped explanations, the revelations raise serious questions in the mind of committee chairman Murray who, in true Senatorial style, elects to kill the nomination by simply ignoring it.

But here the film takes a surprising twist – surprising both in terms of story and its assumption of audience sophistication – and Murray finds himself the target of pushback from Fonda’s shadowy supporters. The handsome Utah Senator has some shocking closet skeletons as well and the film is commendably frank in its depiction of the extorters and their unique lifestyles. While the true measure of Murray’s predicament is delivered in a sort of cloying code – and even that was pushing the era’s moral envelope - the disclosure must have been stunning to audiences bathed in the innocent sunlight of 1962. The film’s denouement is a bit of a let down; a little too tidy and convenient considering all the sleazy fill dirt that’s been dumped on the Capitol dome.

Advise and Consent cleverly conceals a sophisticated and streetwise story in a respect for governmental institutions that seems quite naïve today. While Walter Pidgeon may overindulge in brandy and keep secret company with an attractive widow (Gene Tierney), no one can doubt this Majority Leader’s solemn sense of duty and fair play. Laughton’s Cooley may be a sleazeball marinated in old South racism, but he isn’t willing to inflict permanent damage to the nation simply to prove an ideological point. The film features a number of tragedies, but the fact that today’s audience has little reason to find these honorable politicians believable is by far the most painful one.


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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Bunchy's Scrapbook: Lunchboxes

The metal lunchboxes of the 60s & 70s were utilitarian works of art.
Some were based on popular movies and TV shows:

Superheroes were big

So were Cowboys

I always prefered the generic space travel ones for some reason

I used to wonder if they had PBJs on Mars...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)*****

The Baader Meinhof Complex brilliantly recreates the radically charged political atmosphere of the 1960s, in a surprisingly straight forward way, without resorting to a lot of gimmicks or nostalgic sentimentality. The film chronicles the rise and fall of the RAF, a West German left wing militant group that achieved legendary status among Europe’s trust fund anarchists, despite bloodily botching nearly every operation they attempted. Martina Gedeck, in yet another great performance, stars as Ulrica Meinhof, a respected journalist who falls under the sway of charismatic radical leader Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and she will pay a heavy price for her dalliance with armed insurrection.

Director Uli Edel attempts an even-handed approach to the storytelling and, while only an eyewitness could vouch for its accuracy, the film feels truthful because neither the entrenched political powers nor the fuzzy cheeked militants are rendered as particularly sympathetic. Edel takes great pains to show us the oppressive Germany of the Kiesinger era, whose intolerance of dissent served as a breeding ground for the decade of violent radicalism that followed. When the famous June 2, 1967 demonstration protesting the Shah of Iran’s visit to Berlin erupts into a riot of bloodlust, no punches are pulled in Edel’s harrowing depiction. The German police apply overwhelming brute force against the young protestors with a chilling relish not seen since the Nazi rallies thirty years before.

This display of government sanctioned brutality, along with growing unrest over Vietnam and a spate of high profile political assassinations, ignite fires of revolution among German youth and a number of militant groups form, with Baader’s RAF emerging as the best organized and most lethal. But Andreas Baader is not painted as a lefty folk hero in this portrait, but rather a thuggish, egotistical hoodlum who just happens have a few deep seated political beliefs. Edel serves up a perfect counterpoint to the June 2nd atrocities when a RAF sponsored protest of a right-wing newspaper becomes an orgy of violent retaliation and the air is filled with firebombs and bullets.

Amid the heat and smoke of urban warfare, the film makes some striking and compelling observations. One is the desperate nature of the everyday life of a radical. Regardless of the ideological purity of one’s motives, once the line of violent insurrection has been crossed there is no difference between a political activist and a homicidal maniac in the eyes of the law. This prompts a spiral of continuing lawlessness, as radicals must live in the shadows and resort to the practices of a criminal enterprise simply to survive. Director Udel also subtly hints that the large scale acts of terror employed by today’s Islamic militants are logical extensions and embellishments of techniques originally used in the West; in some cases learned first hand from disgruntled 1960s European youth.

The film’s final act, in which Meinhof, Baader and company come face to face with their mortal enemy - the state political establishment – sheds a revealing light into the emotional states of the former militants. Meanwhile, the RAF is taken over by a new generation of ideologues, whose acts of wholesale violence are so destructive even Andreas Baader is appalled. But there is one more act of sedition to be performed, and through it the principals manage a symbolic, but quite hollow, victory over the system.

The Baader-Meinhof Complex unspools much like a typical true crime film, which is refreshing considering its politically charged subject matter. Neither side is glorified or vilified. And in this case, the slow grinding wheels of justice actually work in favor of the prosecution, as the passage of time renders the justifications of political terror a distant memory and the perpetrators become cartoony figures, as out of fashion as bell bottoms and love beads. The Seventies would soon be over, and conservative governments would rise to power throughout Europe and the US aided, at least in part, by voters’ ultimate rejection of the brave new world of radical political action.

The revolutionaries depicted here not only failed to achieve their vague, unfocused aims, but failed miserably. And Ulrica Meinhof remains the central tragic figure; a talented journalist who forgot the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword.


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Friday, October 8, 2010

Come Undone (2010)**

This film is about adultery, Italian style, and before all is said and done – or undone in this case- there are quite a few loud and histrionic displays. Actually, for about the first hour, Come Undone is an intelligent and absorbing domestic drama, filmed in an involving verite style, but the later reels devolve into narrative implausibility and the main characters into annoying selfish whining, and you just want reach through the screen and slap them.

Here we meet Anna (Alba Rohrwacher) and her burly teddy bear of a husband Alesso (Giuseppe Battiston), as they go about their everyday lives in bustling Milan. They rush a pregnant friend to the delivery room, go shopping at big box stores, suffer through family dinners with pushy in-laws and generally live in such an unremarkable manner the film could just as easily be set in Tokyo or Pittsburgh. There’s an appealing, energetic pulse to these expository scenes, and director Silvio Soldini captures many of the details of the young couple’s lives in ways that feel exactly right, and allows the audience to completely lose themselves in the proceedings.

At an office party, Anna meets a waiter named Domenico (Pierfrancesco Favino) and a bit of tipsy flirting ensues, that at first seems harmless and not at all out of character for the vivacious Anna. But eventually lines are crossed, secret arrangements are made, and before long the pair is meeting in a garishly sleazy motel room, where they lunge and grapple like jungle beasts in heat. This is how people have sex in the movies these days - like violently falling off a cliff – and it’s difficult to imagine it being very pleasurable for either party.

The narrative focus then shifts to Domenico and a shorthand dispersal of his backstory, in which we learn that he is the head of a financially struggling household, complete with squalling little kids and an overwhelmed and exhausted wife (Teresa Saponangelo). This change in point-of-view is quite abrupt – jarring actually – and is the first sign that Soldini is venturing onto a rocky narrative path. It’s no doubt important to the story arc for the audience to become more intimately acquainted with Domenico, but this sensitive transition screams to be handled with more finesse.

But this bit of awkwardness is minor compared to the plot holes that lie ahead, as the furtive couple discover their own compatibility issues and clashing expectations. They viciously break-up and passionately reunite so many times it’s easy to become disgusted, and really quite bored, with the lot of them. Their spouses aren’t exactly fountains of strength and wisdom either, as they seem easily fooled and all too conciliatory when the script hits the fan in the final act.

The film’s ludicrous conclusion, which involves a dirty weekend in Tunisia, actually feels like it belongs in a completely different film, or else some sort of demented dream sequence. But alas no; it’s intended to be real and audiences are supposed to buy it. However, the credibility damage is minimal as most audiences will have stopped caring long ago. It’s so disappointing because Come Undone begins brilliantly, and Soldini (who shares a writing credit with two others) can tell an engaging story firmly grounded in realism. But all the available light and handheld cameras in the world can’t make this preposterous tale ring true.


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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bride Flight (2008)****

Bride Flight is a great big honking crowd pleaser of a film; full of adventure, romance, exotic locales, dark secrets and even a smattering of hot sex. Set in 1953, the story focuses on four lucky – if you consider having your wits scared out of you lucky – winners of free passage aboard a KLM turboprop bound from Holland to New Zealand.

The flight is a bit of a publicity stunt – KLM is competing with several other airlines to set a new airspeed record for the London to Christchurch route – and such is the pilot’s obsession with victory that no variation is allowed in the flight path; bone-rattling turbulence and violent thunderstorms be damned.

On board we meet three young women, all of them engaged and on their way to be reunited with their future husbands; the men having gone ahead to New Zealand months ago to find employment and lodging. Also on the manifest is a strapping young hunk named Frank (Waldemar Torenstra) who plans to grow grapes and eventually preside over a famous winery.

Fate takes a hand when Frank is seated next to Ada (Karina Smulders), a sheltered innocent whose marriage to a strict, humorless Calvinist (Micha Hulsof) has been virtually pre-arranged by her parents. Frank arouses passions in the sensual young Ada she has never felt before, and with the speeding plane frequently tossing the passengers about like rag dolls, there’s plenty of opportunity for physical contact. We also meet Esther (Anna Drijer), a woman much more interested in a career than family life, who happens to appreciate Frank’s charms as well, and Marjorie (Elise Schaap), who dreams of a large family, but will find the creation of that family a dangerous struggle.

The quartet eventually split up to pursue their own destinies in the rocky wilds of New Zealand, and the pioneer lifestyle provides plenty of hardships and humorous surprises for the young women. But Ada, despite doing her best to comply with every whim of her stern new husband, can never forget the dashing young man she left on the tarmac at Christchurch. Meanwhile Esther - who has given up on the notion of married life ever working for her - gets reacquainted with Frank on a moonlit night. And the results will profoundly change the lives of all the protagonists.

The paths of the women intersect numerous times over the next few decades, and it is this multi-generational storyline that gives Bride Flight such wide audience appeal. To viewers of a certain age, there is the clear draw of nostalgia as director Ben Sombogaart and his team have paid fanatical attention to detail. The art direction and set dressing give us a palpable and poignant sense of life for these European expats. They have traveled to the other side of the world and are desperately trying to put their stamp on this exotic land via sentimental bric-a-brac and lacey ephemeral reminders of life in Holland. Through the course of film the characters will encounter many new landscapes, but the most challenging ones prove to be the craggy recesses of their own lives.

The filmmaking is exceedingly competent and, at times, even inspired, without ever becoming flashy or distracting. The film is in essence a small scale story of quiet desperation, elevated to an epic level by the stoic bravery and common human folly of the characters. We cheer for their successes, and despair when the expectations and morality of 1950s society conspire against them. Talented Karina Smulders is simply riveting as Ada, whose character stands as a poster child for the perils women faced when they were routinely treated as second class citizens.

Ultimately, a funeral draws the principals together in the present day, and they wear their silver hair and creased faces as badges of honor for all they’ve endured. A cynic could certainly make a case that the film is simply an overplotted bit of melodrama - a bodice ripper with a side order of fresh kiwis. But thanks to Sombogaart’s masterful, restrained storytelling and pitch-perfect performances from the leads, Bride Flight slowly weaves its irresistible web. A web that snares audiences, who can only sit and revel in its splendor.


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