Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom (1924)***

The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom is about a group of men who are passionately, and somewhat perplexingly, attracted to the same woman. Whether it’s her beguiling personality, her trim figure or her budding mustache, cigarette vendor Zina (Yuliya Solntseva) finds herself hip deep in would-be suitors...

Monday, August 29, 2011

It Rains in My Village (1968)*****

Reviewed by Shu Zin

IT RAINS IN MY VILLAGE has the classic elements of a love story, presented in a tiny village of peasants somewhere in Serbia, enlivened with murder, and punctuated with a gaggle of gypsy musicians: testy, observant, ironic and brill. I wished for subtitles for the lyrics. These musicians function as a sort of Greek chorus; a loose political context provides the background. The themes and music are evocative of a people who cannot be suppressed; they are indifferent to a vaguely perceived totalitarian government as they go about trying to rebuild their ruined church. I suppose it helps if you love the music, and I do. It always makes me dance or weep or laugh. It is used to brilliant effect here; I did all three.

Aleksandar Petrovic directs this straightforward film and, making extraordinary use of close-ups, contributes beauty and pathos to a story that is well-written and highly intelligent. Shocks and surprises happen here, just occasionally, but powerfully.

A high point in the film is the appearance of French actress, Annie Girardot (see her astounding filmography on Wikipedia) who died in February, 2011. She is Gotza, a whimsical, heartbreaking village idiot whom a handsome pig farmer, Tricha, is tricked into marrying. Then, with the shocking appearance of an automobile, a beautiful, arrogant school teacher, passionate and cruel, arrives in town, followed by a handsome airman, to wreak havoc with the social fabric of the village.

The villagers exist in a time warp, a vacuum. One of the more profoundly edifying lines in the film is “we never get the newspapers, so I wouldn’t know, friend.” The final triumph of religion and local justice is cynical and nothing short of appalling. If you are in the mood for a powerful, exotic and original movie, my suggestion is to give this one a shot. Classic themes in a fresh, original, moving take with attendant shocks to the system. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Shu Zin

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Essential Killing (2010)**1/2

An Afgan POW faces rendition, torture, hypothermia and a roving band of adorable Border Collies in Essential Killing, a new video-on-demand release from Tribeca Films. Whether Essential Killing is worth demanding is a complex question; it’s a film of artful, inspired moments interspersed with wobbly plot devices and eye-rolling conveniences. At times, the film feels like a script leftover from The Fugitive TV series of the 1960s, given a millennial makeover and spiffed up with makeshift post 9/11 relevance. The resulting construction fails to capitalize on its strengths in any meaningful way, and over the course of the film, becomes weighed down by ever expanding illogical baggage. Tiny stretches of credibility – that could have easily been forgiven once or twice – begin to enlarge and ultimately dominate the proceedings. By the time all is said and done, the film, much like its taciturn protagonist, withers into a fine powder of blowing snow. And audiences are left to quietly wonder just what veteran director Jerzy Skolimnowski was hoping to achieve.

The film's opening sequence is powerful and skillfully done, as we meet a lone Afgan fighter named Muhammed (Vincent Gallo) scurrying through a vast maze of desert canyons, hoping to avoid detection by a hovering American helicopter. Also in the canyon are a pair of hung over, party animal American civilian contractors (Zach Cohen, Iftach Ophir) led by a US solider (Raymond Josey) heavily laden with hi-tech equipment designed to detect IEDs. After a suspenseful build up, their paths eventually cross, resulting in a violent confrontation. The fleeing Muhammed is tracked by the chopper and, in a wonderful bit of spinning air-to-ground cinematography, we see him cornered like a rabid desert dog. 

Later, Muhammed and a large group of hooded and bound Afgan fighters are shipped to Poland for more aggressive questioning. Their voyage takes place under cover of night, in a military cargo plane so devoid of creature comforts this reviewer will never again complain about Southwest Airlines. But a funny thing happens on the way to the waterboard, and when a speeding transport truck swerves to avoid some scurrying wildlife, the vehicle careens down an icy hill, tossing out prisoners like a popcorn machine. Muhammed is thrown clear of the wreckage, and finds himself transformed into a Mujahideen version of Dr. Richard Kimble. He quickly scampers off into the snowy forest for a date with freedom – or frostbite. 

Acts of idiocy can be endearing on Reality TV – see Roseanne’s Nuts – but at this point audience opinions of Muhammed’s reasoning skills are likely to be widely diverse. Solimnowsky never quite makes it clear how audiences are supposed to feel about his disheveled hero. At times he appears to be an innocent victim of dogmatic religious doctrine; at times a noble rustic caught in a web of Western imperialism but, in the later reels of this film, he mainly comes off as kind of a jerk. Vincent Gallo tries mightily to breathe a sympathetic life into this character, but his Muhammed embarks on so many ill-conceived schemes in his quest for freedom most viewers will want to kick him

The script doesn’t help him out very much, loaded as it is with coinkydinks and ham-fisted attempts at cultural relevancy. About halfway through, the starving Muhammed eats some berries that, for the muddled purposes of this film, turn out to be hallucinogenic.  Soon, he is descended upon by a dozen or so playful Border Collies as he cowers in abject fear. Supposedly, Solimnowski is attempting some sort of reference to the well known Muslim fear of dogs, but here it seems awfully silly, and most viewers will wonder just what the hell purebred, Westminster-ready Border Collies are doing wandering the Polish wilderness. Later, when the toll of his wintertime idyll becomes life threatening, Muhammed staggers to the door of a forest cottage that looks like something from a Thomas Kincade painting, and inhabited by a lovely lady (Emmanuelle Seigner) who sensuously cleans his wounds. When the local constables visit to inquire about an escaped Islamist, it turns out Muhammed’s kindly nurse is actually deaf and mute, and unable to divulge any helpful information.

And therein lies the essential issue with Essential Killing. Is it meant to be an allegory? A profound commentary on the War on Terror? Or simply a bracing adventure film of Man vs. Nature? One could make an argument that it ultimately fails on all these counts, primarily due to never clearly declaring a thesis. An assortment of interesting, well photographed sequences is not sufficient to comprise a film of such obviously higher aims. Essential Killing is a film of ambition, skill and laudable effort. If it ever decides on a theme…let us know.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson (2011)

Sometimes a single word can generate so many thoughts and memories that it becomes reverie. The Lantern, a novel by Deborah Lawrenson is filled with such words, taking the reader on a delightful voyage through an intimate weaving of sights and smells with dark mysteries present and past. Lawrenson’s time-shifting tapestry centers on an old farmhouse in Provence and envelopes the reader in “an olfactory elegy to life in the French countryside”.

The story unfolds along two interspersed tracks. The first concerns the whirlwind romance between a young translator called Eve, and Dom, an older man of worldly sophistication. The couple begin their new life together with the renovation of a country estate in the sunny south of France – the type of rambling, eccentric stone maison rurale that makes tourists swoon. The second thread features the mystical story of Bénédicte, a resident from the property’s murky past, whose experiences offer chilling parallels to the present day owners. As Eve begins to suspect Dom of a secret and sordid past, her story begins to meld with the plight of Bénédicte, and their kindred spirits become entwined. Meanwhile, there is another, more recent ghost that haunts this couple, and the secrets locked deep within this phantom will determine Eve’s ultimate fate.

Lawrenson’s vivid descriptions of the past transport the reader from this sterile techno age to a misty era smoldering with intrigue. Clues, often delivered as vibrant descriptions of smells or sounds, will lead the reader to feel the mystery is on the verge of solution, only to turn the page and find The Lantern’s narrative labyrinth twisting ever deeper. This gifted writer has the ability to transport her readers to the darkening edges of another time with a wonderful verbal economy, and then return to the budding lavender of present day Provence with an immediacy that contrasts the sensory overload bourn by the living with the wispy memories of the long dead.

With The Lantern, Deborah Lawrenson manages to combine the sensual dreaminess found in the best travel writing with the gothic churning of cleverly plotted romantic thrillers. Her melding of genres leads to a three dimensional sense of time-and-place, and a book that educates and evokes while it briskly entertains. Lawrenson transports her readers to lush worlds of romance, pathos and century-old enigmas. Yet, along the way, she gives her readers plenty of time to stop and smell the roses.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Griff the Invisible (2010)**

"The movie works awfully hard to arrive at an empty and obvious allegory, and Ford’s desire to resolve his story in a neat, shiny package feels like glib manipulation. To top it off, Griff the Invisible breaks one of the cardinal rules of scripting: its assortment of odd characters gets less interesting the more we learn about them."

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Book Review: The Conscious Catwoman Explains Life on Earth by Julie Newmar (2011)

Like a cooling breeze, Julie Newmar’s new book The Conscious Catwoman Explains Life on Earth provides a welcome tonic to this overheated summer of our discontent. While America’s so-called leaders embarrass us with their petty maneuvering and bickering, The Conscious Catwoman offers a refreshing counterbalance of positivism, integrity and, that rarest of commodities, common sense. In these dark days, it’s easy to forget that this country still has an abundance of unique resources and priceless treasures. And the iconic Miss Newmar must be counted among them.

Like its author, The Conscious Catwoman is a slim, charismatic and quite flexible volume, filled with photographs of Newmar at various stages of her long career, along with nuggets of wisdom she has gathered along the way. Renowned as a gardener, here Newmar applies similar principles to create a design for life through generous helpings of sage and entertaining advice on a wide range of topics. Here are a few snippets:

On writing: Teach yourself, by writing to yourself. Keep Writing: very soon, something pops out.

On health: Your body has a very high intelligence. Its designer didn’t come out with the Yugo car.

On wealth: Every profession has its scullery duty.

Other chapters deal with pursuing dreams, dealing with parents (and your memories of them), and developing good taste. The book concludes with a chapter devoted to the author’s handicapped son John, and her commentary brims with the love and pride Newmar feels for him and his accomplishments.

The Conscious Catwoman Explains Life on Earth is a compelling and charming book that's laced with the joy of living. Julie Newmar may have been the archetypal pin-up girl but, as this volume makes clear, her beauty is more than matched by her talent, intelligence and wit. And her philosophical musings offer not only food for thought, but a re-kindling of the belief that humanity may be worth saving, after all.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must run to the store for some liver powder and spirulina.  Sorry, you’ll have to read the book to find out why….

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Criterion Collection: The Music Room (1958) Blu-ray ****1/2

"In tone and theme, The Music Room is reminiscent of the later reels of Citizen Kane, where Charles finds himself reduced to a sad, empty husk amid his ruinously overbuilt Florida pleasure palace. But the emotional issues that plague Charles Foster Kane are mere child’s play compared to the karmic ravages faced by the aging Biswambher Roy..."

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Briefly Noted...

Darling (1965)***

One of those 1960s “sophisticated” entertainments in which everyone drinks too much, drives too fast in zippy little convertibles, has tawdry affairs, and there’s a character or two that might be gay. This one also has a couple of plot twists too many, and as Julie Christie sleeps her way to the top, you’ll likely need a scorecard to manage all the convolutions. The dreamy assemblage of Christie, Laurence Harvey and Dirk Bogarde never quite gels here, but it’s not director John Schlesinger’s fault. Darling is a 3 hour script crammed into 128 minutes, and it gets a little exhausting.

Japon (2002)***

This debut effort from Carlos Reygadas features the bleak physicality of his later films, but fails to establish that perfectly dialed-in mood of existential despair that’s made his work famous – or infamous. The accent here is on the raw and the unfiltered, without the balancing humanism of Battle in Heaven or Silent Light. Fans of the director will recognize a number of trademark Reygadas shot designs, but ultimately, the film seems more like Arthouse porn than the transfixing internal dramas we’ve come to expect.. Japon gets a third star for at least trying to do something interesting, but there’s some shocking stuff here, so don’t watch it with the in-laws.

Rendez-vous (1985)**

By the time Andre Techine's bohemian anti-romance is over, you will likely have lost any marginal interest in any of the characters. Perky Juliette Binoche plays an archetypal young woman who flees the provinces for the big city to pursue an artistic career and the attendant sexually liberated lifestyle. Along the way, she gets buck nekkid with several miscreants, all of whom turn out to be shining examples of what utter pigs men can be. The most disturbing aspect of this dour snoozer is that it’s a reasonably accurate picture of urban dating life in the 1980s. It’s a miracle we survived.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Leon Morin, Priest (1961) **1/2


"Léon Morin, Priest is a film with a few intriguing and compelling moments, but never adds up to anything greater than the sum of its parts. Melville seemed so concerned with pleasing everyone that he took a fascinating premise – a study of the similarities of military campaigns and organized religion – and through excessive calculation, turned it into pablum for the masses."

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Screaming Man (2009)***1/2

"Mere words cannot be trusted in a time of civil war, and in A Screaming Man, Haroum wisely distrusts them to convey the full measure of his hero’s bitter and costly lapses. Like the nation of Chad, Adam has managed to destroy himself from within, and we can only sit and ache at the horrors of the aftermath."