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Bikur Ha-Tizmoret (2007)
Feel Free To Visit Anytime
Israeli writer and directors Eran Kolirin debut is a beautifully restrained tale of learning to face unfamiliarity with nobility and dignity. The Band's Visit delicately constructs a small scale masterpiece that achieves more with mood and body language as compared to spoken language. The writing is clever and gives actors the room to explore their characters with physicality and never once does it feel unauthentic.
Stranded in the middle of Israel's Negev Desert, eight men of The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra try to handle cultural and language barriers with modestness. As a bus pulls away we are left with 8 men dressed to the nines in robin blue uniforms helplessly stuck in an airport on their way to perform at an Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tiqva. After a few phone calls and some sweet talking with the help of Chet Baker the band arrives in the town of Bet Hatikva. The groups tight lipped leader Tewfig is confronted with a series of setbacks and is forced with the task of making sure his men are taken after. With no hotels in town and no transportation leading out Tewfig is reluctantly excepts an offer from a heaven sent restaurant owner by the name of Dina.
Over the course of the night Egyptian and Israeli culture intertwines awkwardly yet charmingly in multiple small scale adventures. Tewfig and Haled (the band's young ladies man) stay at Dina's house while Simon and two others spend the night at an employee of the restaurant while the other three just sit outside all night and play music. Tewfig and Dina decide to take a night out on the town, in this case a simple bleak restaurant and begin to get to know each other. The two don't get to know each other by asking a lot of questions about each others personal history but rather embrace the chance to enjoy the simple beauty of just physically being around someone. An especially touching scene has Tewfig showing Dina how he conducts his orchestra by the gentle movements of his arm. Haled opts to take a look around the city with crushingly shy Papi and his set up date which has them ending up in a roller rink. Haled acts almost as an older brother to Papi and helps the inexperienced boy land the girl he is too shy to make the moves on. And while all of these character come together and share each others melancholy they still remain isolated and self-reflective.
Simon and the rest of the gang spend their night entertaining and being entertained by an Israeli family. Over the course of an awkward dinner Simon and his band mates quietly sit back as the family argues over various things such as how the husband and wife met until a comically genius impromptu version of George Gershwin's "Summertime." More than any other point in the film does Simon's stay seem to bring out the old ghosts of Egypt and Israel's broken relationship. While Kolirin never hits the audience over the head with a political statement it's presence can still be felt like a recovering wound. While other members of the band attempt to make phone calls while fending off a dedicated boyfriend waiting for a phone call, Simon spends more time with the family. Upon viewing the families young child with the slightest change in facial posture it is evident that Simon has finally completed his unfinished sonata. It is moments like this that really show how skillful Kolirin is for a first time director.
While not a whole lot happens in this short 87 minute film we are left with a lasting impression. The mixture of comedy with melancholy balances each other out and leaves a bittersweet touch on the overall feel of the film. The film's musical selection could not have suited the story anymore impeccably and compliment the feeling of longing the entire film has. The films strong point is that it relies on nuances and not theatrics, substance and not style, honesty and not distraction. Not only does The Band's Visit evoke the beauty in language but it shows beauty in the communal power of the language of music. While the characters in this film may think they are lost it doesn't necessarily mean they are and with The Bands Visit it seems they are stuck out of necessity rather than mistakenly.
White Dog (1982)
animals are cute
Keys is an African American dog trainer assigned to reprogram a white dog who has been trained to attack and kill black people. While the premise for this film might seem simple it manages to remain extremely immense enough in context that it enables itself to convey profound themes and messages in a purely "cinematic" fashion without seeming pretentious. All at once "White Dog" manages to be a strong critique on racism, corruption, and the loss of innocence without seeming self important or aggrandizing. The beauty of this film is that it works perfectly for two totally different types of film viewers. For the passive "adult" moviegoer this film will be a concise 90 minute tale of a untimely dog owner, unfortunate dog trainer and victimized dog which manages to be different than their normal film experience yet remain accessible enough to not be disregarded (hopefully). For the subjective moviegoer two main things manage to stick out upon viewing which happen to be the juxtaposition of sub-par acting against such an intelligent script and social assessment. To a certain degree the level of acting manages to make the script stronger in the sense that is emphasizes the faults in humanity (on screen and off) as compared to the guiltlessness of corrupted "animals." To most the dog's white coat is a symbol of race or contrasting values but at the real core of the film the white coat symbolizes innocence and how easy it is to corrupt. The prospect of witnessing man's best friend transform into man's worst enemy all because of his own faults is an extremely bleak yet extremely powerful framework to contemplate. And while may it be hard for certain people to come to terms with, this is the perfect commentary on how humans alienate themselves in the process of trying to impose individual politics on a situation, no matter how noble the cause might be. While having the blatant potential to be hopelessly romantic, Fuller ends the film the only possible way the film could have ended. Everyone tries their hardest to rectify a situation that will not only offer personal gain but mutual gain but is inevitably destroyed by everything we have naively worked towards. In retrospect "White Dog" stands out as a genuinely ambitious film in a time of stagnant film-making and still lacks the accolades it deserves.
The Wrestler (2008)
A Broken Down Piece of Meat That Doesn't Deserve To Be All Alone
It's no coincidence that Mickey Rourke is responsible for the comeback performance of the year if not the decade. Rourke's life and tumultuous past parallel Randy "The Ram" Robinson's own life so eerily close it becomes clear that no one else could have ever played this role. Darren Aronofsky's fourth feature is not only his most intimate but also his most accomplished to date. Aronofsky offers his most simplistic film both visually and narratively and ends up creating a film that has more depth and layers to it than any of his previous films.
Everything about Randy's life is in a state of decay. He retains a body that is on the verge of collapse, he hasn't seen his only daughter in years, financially he is exhausted, and the only thing that brings him solace in life is the same thing that threatens to end it. The most effective aspect of Randy's character is that no matter what mistakes he might have made in the past his sense of regret is so strong and genuine that it is impossible not to forgive him. As beaten down and alone as Randy might be he never looses his fighting spirit or sense of hope, no matter how little it may be. Regardless what hardship Randy is confronted with he never retreats and is admirably courageous even if being courageous might not be the smartest settlement.
For the general public who tend to find professional wrestling laughable and are quick to judge as a form of entertainment rather than a sport will find a deadly adversary in Aronofsky. The Wrestler shows that while outcomes of matches may be fixed the physical tolls these men take on their body are often more extreme and long lasting than most other "respectable" sports. The fact that Randy gives so much of himself and is ridiculed from everywhere to the trailer park he lives in to the job he keeps while not in the ring, makes us even more empathetic to the struggle Randy goes through to try and make it back on top. Overall The Wrestler is a constantly engaging and compelling character study with some of the finest acting, writing, directing I have seen in recent years. Oh and I forgot, the last shot will leave you speechless.
This Is The Way, Step Inside
In a day and age full of bloated and nostalgic musical biopics Control is a welcome breath of fresh air that proves the genre is still capable of producing films that are both artistically and aesthetically inventive. Anton Corbijn's feature length debut takes an intimate look at the short life of the ill-fated Joy Division front man Ian Curtis. Based on the book Touching From A Distance written by Ian's widow Deborah Curtis, Control tells Ian's tale without falling into sentimentality but rather investigates it.
Control premiered at Cannes in 2007 to a warm reception by critics and overwhelming praise of then little-known actor Sam Riley, the film went onto be the winner of the festivals Director's Fortnight. Riley's portrayal of Ian is so hauntingly natural and close to Curtis as a person that it gives the feeling that you are watching a stylized documentary. Corbijn whose photography career got a boost after shooting the original Joy Division in the late 70's knows his subjects closely and attempts to examine their lives and choices rather than just solely empathize with them. Corbijn believed so much in this film that he even decided to put down half the cash himself in order to produce this multi-million dollar film.
Aside from Riley's outstanding performance another highlight of the film is cinematographer's Martin Ruhe stark and brooding photography of Macclesfield, England is understated yet powerful. His images are crystal clear yet dark, isolated yet full of life, youthful yet mature. The film's pacing is tight and doesn't fall into the conventional traps that usually bog most biopics down. Corbijn's debut is a poetic ode to a man whom shares fated parallels with Corbijn and has been a source of lifelong inspiration, complete with an unforgettable final metaphor as poignant as it is beautiful.
My Winnipeg (2007)
In My Winnipeg Guy Maddin takes up the task of vicariously reliving his childhood though making a movie re-creating his childhood. Maddin's pseudo documentary is constantly unpredictable film about a constantly predictable city. Maddin's unconventional travelogue absurdly examines the local history and folklore of Winnipeg while investigating Maddin's personal choice to never leave this sleepy snow drenched city.
Maddin decides to begin the process of documenting his time spent in Winnipeg by subletting his childhood home and hiring a group of actors to play the roles of his family members. Ann Savage takes on the role of Maddin's mother and the wheels begin turning on our Freudian nightmare. Winnipeg has the same strange magnetic pull on Maddin as his mother does and he intends to find out why. Maddin leaves no stone unturned and investigates multiple aspects of life in Winnipeg no matter how strange or preposterous. In his quest to find himself and find what lies at the heart of "his" city Maddin paints a portrait of Winnipeg that is at one point full of contempt for his hometown and at another filled with enchantment for it.
An aspect of this film that makes it so interesting is the fact that Maddin decision to not change his longtime visual style actually works out for him even while working in a new "genre" for him. I use the word "genre" loosely. The characters and local oddities we encounter are constantly alluring and intriguing. While at times it may be confusing why Maddin decides to set his camera on certain subjects by the end of the film everything fits into place. At its best My Winnipeg is an oddly heartfelt tribute to a city that has burdened yet inspired Maddin for his entire life. At the least My Winnipeg is a testament to Maddin as a producer who by some miracle convinced the Documentary Channel to fully commission a film so unique and so unmarketable.
East of Eden (1955)
Proving America Loves A Pretty Face
When the majority of people think back on the career of James Dean they tend to think of Rebel Without A Cause as Dean's masterpiece and for good reason. Dean's debut, East of Eden on the other hand is an extremely poor adaptation of a novel of the same name that was written by John Steinbeck. This is the film that put James Dean on the map and was the starting point of his rise as a cultural icon. While some may call this film a milestone, it comes off as a huge misstep for director Elia Kazan.
The film opens up at around ¾ of the way through the actual book and still manages to be a jumbled and uneven mess. Major characters from the book are cut out and in the process create giant plot holes. New characters are added such as Abra who changes the relationship between a lot of characters and adds different tones and themes to the film that Steinbeck originally never intended. Another problem the film suffers from is it's extremely uneven pacing, there is too much time wasted on things that never play into the actual arch of the film. Kazan seems like he tries to distract his audience rather than engage them.
Elia Kazan who has shown through his previous films that he is clearly a capable director and this is the fact that makes this film so disappointing. Kazan never seems truly grasp the underlying tones of Steinbeck's book and this translates to the screen. Instead of treating his material with care and insight he instead seems to constantly exploit Dean's "to cool for school" attitude to manipulate the audience into empathizing with a character because of his looks and not his motives. Kazan never exposes the core essence of his characters he lets characters tell you what their characters are thinking instead of letting them show what they are feeling, a major weakness from any director.
The films biggest weakness is that it never devotes enough time to character development. Characters constantly make decision's that seem out of place and unnatural. For instance when Aron becomes insane and leaves for war his fiancé Abra is totally indifferent to the entire situation. Yet her heart breaks for Cal when he is faced with the fact that he may have to live his life without the forgiveness of his father, even though he is the cause of Aron's leaving. It seems the more and more Cal destroys the lives of the people around him the more they take him in with open arms.
Aside from poor character development the film fails to give an adequate amount of back- story for certain characters. The dynamics of the relationship between Adam and his two sons is never really explored beyond face value. It is never explained how exactly Cal finds out that his mother is alive nor does the film explain the motives of the relationship between Cal and the person he starts his bean business with, who appears on screen a total of 3 times and than forgotten.
The film while generally disappointing and uninspired does have its moments from time to time. Jo Van Fleet who gives the best performance in the film won the award for best supporting actress at the 1956 Academy Awards. Van Fleet's film debut proved that she could hold her own even among larger that life actors such as James Dean. Another strong point of the film can be attributed to the film's art department who do a stellar job at recreating the Salinas Valley circa the early 1900's.
Cinematographer Ted McCord is the real heart of this film. McCord takes chances and they pay off. His use of lighting is more moody than most studio films of the 50's and he maintains a sense of movement even when the actor's blocking remains mostly static. McCord is responsible for developing characters that many of the unimpressive actor's in this film could not accomplish through acting. During one scene between Cal and his father McCord highlights their distorted relationship by using innovative camera tilts that gives the scene a real sense of drama that the acting lacked. The biggest tragedy resulting from this film is that Ted McCord didn't even get nominated for an Academy Award.
After all these years East of Eden seems aged and uninspired. James Dean proved that he was easy to watch on camera but didn't prove that he was an accomplished actor. Unfairly critically acclaimed and winner of one deserved Academy Award East of Eden really only ever accomplishes two things. It proves that people love "happy" endings even if they aren't really "happy" and that too many people are suckers for a pretty face. It is insane to think that Steinbeck "loved" this film upon seeing it.
Mala Noche (1986)
A Milestone In American "Gay" Cinema
As the stagnant state of films in the 1980's was still in its inevitable decline the emergence of a new breed of American independent directors saw this as a moment full of opportunity. Gus Van Sant decided to turn his camera on the outcasts of a small Portland neighborhood and create an intimate portrait of 3 young men at an important turning point in their lives. Not only is Mala Noche an influential example of 1980's independent cinema it also serves as a milestone for the New Queer Cinema that would become more prevalent in the 1990's. Gus Van Sant's stark debut would serve as a blueprint for many directors to come.
Mala Noche focuses on convenience store worker Walt's and his infatuation with a young immigrant Jonny who is fresh off riding the rails from Mexico with his friend Pepper. From the film's first scene its unabashed open "gayness" lets the viewer know what they are in for. Van Sant makes no attempt to justify his films openly gay stance instead he embraces it and explores the beauty and darkness that accompany it. Walt and Johnny coexist solely based on their parasitic relationship. Walt gushes romanticized convictions for a boy he knows little about, such as "I want to drink this Mexican boy" or "I have to show him that I'm gay for him." While Johnny uses Walt for a house to crash and the occasional joy ride in his car. At the same time both are uncomfortable with their personal situation but can't help to hold on to what they have left.
John Campbell's bleak camera work adds a lot to the look of the seedy underbelly of Portland almost as if it could have been shot as a documentary. Mala Noche is one the few films that benefits from working on such a small budget. It gives the viewer a sense that Van Sant was truly in touch on a deeper level with his subjects than just an "actor/director" level. Ultimately Mala Noche is a profound representation of America's emerging "gay" cinema and an important document of Portland in the mid 1980's. Gus Van Sant would go onto make stronger films but this fascinating debut will show he has shown a strong passion for his films and his subjects right from the beginning.
An American Fairy Tale For A New Century
In the summer of 1972 with a shoestring budget of $300,000 and a non-union crew working behind him Terrence Mallick began shooting principle of his debut feature. Inspired by the real-life murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, Mallick crafts a meditative film about the forces that drive people who refuse to be held to society's restraints. 25 year old James Dean lookalike Kit stumbles upon an enchanting 15 year old redhead who goes by the name of Holly, after a simple walk down the street nothing is ever the same for these two. What starts off as a fairy tale romance quickly escalates into a series of constant confrontations that become increasingly out of the couple's hands.
Considering the subject matter Mallick does a meticulous job at keeping Kit and Holly likable to the audience. Mallick's decision to tell this story from the perspective of Holly gives us added insight into a character that often may seem resigned on screen. The narration works as an almost dream-like that she has written for our ears only, it gives the viewer a very strong sense of intimacy and connection with Holly. As for Kit no matter how violent or idealistic he might come off as it is impossible not to admire his wit and determination even if it might not always be in his best interest. The couple's hopeless romanticism help to counter balance the violence that sometimes becomes necessary in order to continue their bold adventure together.
Something that really stands out and contributes a huge deal to the entire film's mood is Mallick's choice of score. The short composition Gassenhauser by from Carl Orff's Schulwerk is the perfect companion to Mallick's dream like imagery. Violent outbursts are followed by moments of idyllic affinity made all the more powerful by Orff's whimsical score.
Badlands unfolds like an American fairy tale gone awry. In a world that seems destined to pull them apart two young lovers filled with overflowing optimism decide to take matters into their own hands no matter how tragic the consequence.
An Overlooked And Understated Ensemble Piece
Phil Morrison paints a beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking portrait of the ways family bonds and roles change after years spent apart. After marrying an older more sophisticated woman by the name of Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), George (Alessandro Nivola) takes a trip from Chicago to the bible belt of North Carolina to reunite with his family and introduce his newly wed wife. The clash of culture is evident right from the start and causes a level of constant tension between members of opposing parties. As Madeleine and George's stay becomes longer they begin to find out more and more things about each other that they never knew. At one point these secrets intrigue one another and others force them to reevaluate the person who they thought they knew. George and Madeleine's trip home turns into a learning experience not just for themselves, but also for everyone in the household.
This film's strongest points are easily its writing and acting. Some may argue that some of the characters may come off as a stereotype, but if they were a stereotype they wouldn't be able to articulate themselves in such a poetic manner. Characters have a simple way of communicating with each other but it is always poignant and understated. Phil Morrison keeps the pacing at a pitch perfect speed and the skillful cinematography of Peter Donahue is simple yet effective. The cast is all around superb and plays off each other in such an entertaining manner. There is not one actor that feels out of place as in their character in this film. Amy Adams steals the show as the one light of hope the family holds onto. Her overly bubbly personality might come off as irritating from any other actress but Adams always seems endearing and charming.
As far as recent American independent films go Junebug is a film that transcends certain boundaries that usually constrain independent films. This isn't a film that appeals only to the art house audience rather this is a film that if given a chance really has something for everyone. More than just a "coming home" film Junebug proves itself to be a multi layered film that never tries to hard and comes off as consistently charming no matter what subject matter they are dealing with.