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Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)
Wonderful but difficult film
This is an important film and evidently is regarded as such by many serious reviewers, so I watched it and found it sometimes very hard to sit through because it struck more than a few painful chords in my own memory of my family when I was growing up in the 40s and 50s. Indeed.
My continuing impression is that men of that era, not only in the UK and US as well as elsewhere, were really almost clinically unreflective in that they were so used to being tolerated and getting away with murder that they were nearly incapable of seeing themselves in anything resembling a true light.
How women both sustained family life by themselves and because of their friendships with other women belies the fact that they felt powerless to change anything for the better, at least for more than five minutes.
My fantasy is that it would be great for a lot of men of my generation (now 70) to be tied down with their mouths taped and their eyes propped open with toothpicks, if need be, and forced to watch this movie about forty times! Since that's not going to happen, all I can do is recommend that the peers of my generation at least consider watching it. It can only do us good!
Till There Was You (1991)
The Film That Couldn't Decide What To Be
I got "stuck" watching this one afternoon when I should have been doing something else, and while it seemed to provoke some interest at first, I got confused trying to figure out if it was supposed to be drama or dramatic comedy.
Probably the only redeeming thing about the picture is some great shots of Pentecost Island in the Vanuatu collection of islands, and the anthropologically interesting bungee-jumping tribe therein.
Deborah Unger's performance seemed utterly wooden, and other than a few outbursts by the macho guys swarming around her, there wasn't much passion about any of it.
It did make me want to find and try some kava, though.
An Object Lesson in Hubris
Although quite obviously not a high-budget film, Coup certainly should give the willies to anyone contemplating political or revolutionary activity in Africa these days. The SAIS (South Africa Intelligence Service) is a worthy and, one hopes, much more principled successor to BOSS (Bureau of State Security) that was its predecessor in apartheid South Africa days.
It's hard to imagine which of the key players was the dumbest; besides money, the hooks were excitement, action, and reliving one's glory days. Simon Mann must truly have been nuts to forgo his comfortable (if not well-earned) existence, and many of us who are of his generation can only wonder why it was apparently so easy to give up his pleasant existence for such a risky thing.
Greed, of course, plays a big part in it, but as I indicate in the summary, good ol' hubris was really at the heart of it all. And to top it off, to paraphrase the SAIS agent, you really must have a huge amount of hubris flying around in your head to imagine taking on such a chore without taking into account the black players on the chessboard! Brilliant writing.
Assassination Tango (2002)
My observations about the film after living here three years
I love this film so much I bought it in DVD, and in the last three years have shown it to 1) my Argentine wife; 2) her adult children and their friends; 3)several of my Argentine friends, and 4) the cats (who have to watch it while I'm watching it). All except the last have -- to a person -- found it both completely believable and unremarkable in the sense of "yeah, so what's new?" in its verisimilitude. The film is just about as crazy as real life is in Argentina, and the police-overruling-police scene is just one example. The conversations in the tango joint about the tango and people and Argentina and life are all about as real as I've witnessed here myself.
The longer I'm here the more I realize how difficult it is to portray what Argentina is "really like," mainly because it isn't any one thing but a whole mishmash of cultural, historical, economic, and political things that career around in people's lives and their minds and their emotions continuously.
The only thing I can say for sure is that if you meet anyone -- even an Argentine -- who tells you Argentina and its life and culture are easy to explain, don't believe it.
Someone said living here is like living a Kafka novel, and sometimes it certainly can feel that way. Conspiracy theory as a way of life has been endemic here, as far as I can tell, since the country first got going. The rural-urban split is real -- the whole City of Buenos Aires votes completely differently from the rest of the country and it doesn't mean a whit of difference except that the federal government becomes even more reluctant to help the capital because its politics are so frequently played out on another planet. And I'm not sure I agree with other comments that Argentines have a big inferiority complex; I think it's more like a "confusion" complex, i.e., "Why don't these other people understand life the way I do?"
The film also reminds me a bit of Apochalypse Now in that you just sort of have to watch it -- many times, perhaps -- and realize at the end you're just about as confused as you were when you first saw it, so if you're like me, you accept that, live with it, and are happy to hear any new interpretations that might come along.
Finally, I believe that Argentina is not a comfortable place to live if you're not extremely familiarity with and experienced in living in paradox, confusion, and Isaiah Berlin's theory of "negative freedoms." Thank God, I love it. But I know many don't!
Un week-end sur deux (1990)
A Sad Little Tragedy
The prior review is far more sophisticated than mine. I liked the film and certainly appreciate the style and honesty of it, both in the story and in the cinematography. The story is in fact quite a sad one in the genre of "spoiled brat gets comeuppance," or words to that effect. I'm not sure whether Camille is having a nervous or spiritual breakdown, but she is certainly running true to what we learn has been her past form. She suddenly has the idea that she can somehow reclaim her children, make up for her less-than-involved parenting during their prior years, and regain the assurance she wants that she's really not a bad person -- all by running away with them on one of the weekends they are "hers." Sadly, it doesn't work, and although the father doesn't seem to be any great shakes, either, it's the kids who will probably pay the price for their parents' relationship. One wants to be able to "like" Camille, but I fear it doesn't wash for me, from either a parenting viewpoint or a women's viewpoint. Yet it tells the tragedy very well and certainly must be commended for that. A well-done film.
Die Ehe der Maria Braun (1979)
Post-War Germany Up Close and Personal
Having heard of this film for years, I didn't see it until 2003! Perhaps it's just as well that I waited. It is one of the finest films of its type -- post WW2 in Germany -- that I've ever seen; perhaps on balance the finest.
It seems to me that rather than being a cynical portrayal of those difficult years, it is more truthful and revelatory in a deep way. I imagine that no one other than those who lived then can begin to tell the story, which is why Fassbinder has tried on our behalf -- to try to convey to us the angst, the frustrations, the sadness, the insanity, the querulousness, the fragile hope of that era.
I find the story very sad, of course, because in my early-21st century psyche I'm more tuned into the love story than I am the tale of the sociology and social psychology of an era that occurred when I was very young. It seems to me that if one views the characters as representatives of some of the major "world views" obtaining during the reconstruction period, one sees a few of the many different human reactions there can be to such an experience: Many feel burned out and can't feel hope any longer; others, like Maria, feel there is at least money and position to be gained under the new dispensation; some simply don't care; others try to feed off the experience without contributing; and so on and so forth.
It also occurred to me that, at age 60, I may be in a position to appreciate this film more, and certainly to be more understanding of and sympathetic with the characters/types portrayed. I found each of them to have an important story to tell, whether it was a "good" story or not. And the character of the Black US Army Sergeant, while tragic at the end, was itself an essay in human relations that has to embarrass most Americans -- the fleeting moments when he and Maria found joy and pleasant times together were just wonderful to behold, and an indictment of our sad history in that regard.
View it and see what you think!
Le septième ciel (1997)
Challenging but Worth It (I think!)
Seventh Heaven seems to be a "snapshot" of a married relationship that has reached a development stage that neither husband nor wife fully understands. Married for awhile, a son of 6 or 7, a nanny, a nice apartment; he's a surgeon and she's a lawyer/notaire, no apparent money problems. To my mind, what's occurring is partly stagnation and partly depression. There are at least two key factors: 1) The wife is experiencing largely psychosomatic fainting spells, often related to her low-level but historic kleptomania, and 2) The husband is not exactly losing interest but confused over her malady. She winds up seeing a man she literally runs into, who turns out to be a hypnotist; a result is both apparent cessation of her thieving as well as the achievement of the ability to experience orgasm, apparently for the first time in her life. Up until that point in their sex life, the husband has satisfied himself as the wife lies quietly, telling him "not to worry, I just don't get there." Then in her "new life" they're making love and she has an orgasm that she obviously enjoys and in which she wants to include him, but it scares him to death and affects both his desire and performance -- perhaps not untypically for many men. In the end, after much to-ing and fro-ing, they begin to see the changes as being positive; he through conversation with both a fellow doc at his hospital and with another hypnotist that he is unable to relate to. The resolution phase is, to me, fraught with a lot of significant messages that are both non-verbal and hard to "catch" as the movie moves on, but the denouement seems to click. I want to say I wish the film had been more explicit, but that's probably exactly the reason it's so good. It's worth a shot.
Elvira Madigan (1967)
High Drama, Implausible Ending
The story of the proper young officer and the low-born actress/performer is endemic to European history, and this is probably as good a version as any, especially given the starchy morals of Scandinavians at the time.
My wife and I and three other couples went to the movie long ago, expecting a good show. It was, but by about half-way through, the cinematography was so over the top that it took over the movie. Someone said, "Oh, my God, another spectacular scene," as yet another spectacular scene appeared.
In the end, the lovers are starving from eating roots and berries 'cause they're broke and can't seem to find anyone to feed them. As the motion slows in a beautiful field of trees and flowers, the lieutenant kisses the woman and then shoots her, and then himself. End of story. A butterfly wanders through the last scene -- the lovers "liberated" at last.
Another of our group, as the lights in the theatre were coming up amid sniffles and sobs, said calmly but loudly in his unmistakable Brooklyn accent, "They shoulda stole a chicken." The whole theatre broke up laughing -- with the signal exception of a few die-hards who were trapped in their grief.
Actually, not a terrible film, just a pretty unrealistic one.
Est - Ouest (1999)
Once you accept the premise, the rest follows well.
Others have commented on the "reality" of Soviet/Ukrainian life in the 1950s; since I wasn't there, I can't tell. But the initial hurdle for me was to accept that the wife, Marie, somehow first agreed to emigrate with her Russian-born husband and their son, and then once there suddenly coming across as "let me out of here!" I realize couples in love can make stupendously erratic decisions, but this one was rather major -- leaving France, which certainly was in the throes of its own economic and infrastructure collapse after World War II, to the Soviet Union, which was several times worse off. I can see Alexei buying into it through some kind of patriotic altruism, but I can't imagine why Marie would have done so. There isn't, as far as I know, any history of large numbers of French -- Communist or otherwise -- voluntarily moving to the USSR following the war (or anytime, for that matter). They're just too savvy -- they would have said, "Hell, if it's this bad in France in 1946, it's got to be utterly wretched in the Soviet Union. Je ne vais point!" Or words to that effect.
Nonetheless, a great movie to watch if only for the actors, the idea of what living in Kiev might have been like in that period, and even the little sad shots of Sofia towards the end.
His Character Shows Through
A wonderful aspect of this film is showing Harry Truman as a person who is very clear about the nature of authority and role. He is unapologetic about the appropriate use of his authority as President, especially in firing MacArthur, and he is clear about role differentiation when he says things like, "I don't care what they think of Harry Truman the man, but I will not tolerate disrespect to the Office of President of the United States." This is a classic case of "taking your job seriously but never yourself." One could wish all Presidents -- indeed, all leaders -- could learn this aspect of true leadership. This a great film that bears watching more than once.