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Sand Dancer (2006 Video)
8/10
Sand-drawing artist Peter Donnelly
5 April 2011
A man, a long stick, a rake, a sandy beach, and low tide. We are on the seashore near Christchurch on the south island of New Zealand. The man is Peter Donnelly. The stick is dragged on the sand to form curvy shapes. The rake imparts texture. Peter alternates raked and unraked areas. Shells are places at the central point in the drawing. Not particularly impressive until you consider the dimensions. Drawings are so extensive that to see the result in their full glory gawked line a pier that stands high above the beach. While tourists get a bird's eye view, Peter has no such advantage, working at ground level. (In that it reminds one of the large drawings found in the Peruvian altiplano.) Peter works quickly for he has only three hours to complete the artwork. His body moves elegantly guiding the stick, feeling the hardness of the sand with his feet, jumping over raked areas. No wonder this short is called Sand Dance.

Sadly the tide rises, the waves lap the edge of the art and it disappears little by little.
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Mary and Max (2009)
10/10
Bittersweet animated story masterfully executed
28 May 2010
Clamation has become popular with the duo of Wallace and Gromit. Until "Mary and Max", Nick Park's creations were tops. Now this film has claimed the acme. It does it by a masterful combination of uncannily perfect story telling, imaginative self-deprecating characters, well-managed timing in plot development, a fair amount of humor balanced with endearing bittersweetness, and wonderful animation that serves the story's needs perfectly.

The story is one of contesseration by a young girl in Australia of a randomly chosen older man in the USA. It is based on real events, though the script writer almost certainly added embellishments and the kinds of twists and turns that make for a compelling story. Watching "Mary and Max" is like reading a book you cannot let go. The story is so unusual, so original, so endearing, so fascinating, that it grabs you right from the start and keeps you in its grip to the end. The events are so well timed, the surprises so well placed, that we never loose our curiosity for the characters, for the evolving plot, for the possible endings. It's constant fascination.

There is a good deal of humor. Some outright riots. Yet there are many bittersweet moments. It even succeeds in being a deeply felt tearjerker. It will make you laugh and cry at the same time. A rare and precious combination.

In short, "Mary and Max" is a masterpiece. Don't miss it!
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Hello Goodbye (I) (2008)
6/10
Made for TV lightweight comedy
9 April 2010
A lightweight comedy whose humor depends largely on the inadequacies of a non-observant French Jewish doctor who emigrates with his converted wife to Israel. The first half is the one that draws the most laughs (mostly just chuckles), while the second half concentrates on developing the story of a husband and wife relationship that is breaking apart. There is a genuinely humorous gag near the beginning but otherwise the farcical elements of the story are only mildly funny.

Not surprisingly, a comedy such as this is built on a long string of contrivances that ends up taking a toll on one's patience. One hour into, I could not help but feel a bit exasperated with the story. It's the kind of film that is made for TV audiences.
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8/10
Old robbers in prison tell personal stories
9 September 2009
Through interviews, film clips, old and recent footage, this documentary reveals the personal stories of a few old robbers doing time in a Mexico City penitentiary. The initial interviews feel unfocused. We are introduced to a few of the principal robbers and how they got to be thieves, pickpockets and con-men. Things get better as the principal robber, “El Carrizo”, recounts his most celebrated heists, his uneasy relationship with corrupt policemen, and his final sentencing to many years in prison. One of the best stories is El Carrizo's robbery of president Luis Echeverria's house. The robbery was successful but El Carrizo left behind evidence of his modus operandi. The police nabbed him soon after – an interesting story in itself – and he became an instant celebrity.

Even if this is no “Beginner's Guide to Robbery”, the documentary contains tidbits of wisdom. For example, while breaking into a house at night, if you stumble into a bedroom where husband and wife are sleeping, the first thing to do is slide your hand under the husband's pillow. Why? That's where the family gun is likely to be. Other examples answer why it is better to wear wool pants when breaking into a house and how to cleverly con someone out of real money for a piece of fake gold jewelry (a variation of the con that is a often applied on tourists along the Seine River in Paris).

The most damning revelations are the ones about the level of corruption in the police department and the use of torture, such as water-boarding, to extract confessions from suspects. El Carrizo has quite a bit to say about both subjects. He had an uneasy relationship with a mustached agent called Dracula who exacted a “rent” from criminals in exchange for quick release from prison and freedom to operate. The rent was a percentage of the booty. For others the rent was in the form of fixed payments. When they could no longer pay, they were sentenced or killed. It's like the bit of humor I heard in Latin America: Watch out, the police is coming; call the bandits to save us.

Towards the end, El Carrizo is asked if he ever robbed other thieves. Yes, president Portillo. He sacked the president's house taking jewelry, US dollars (a common form of stashing wealth in Latin America) and other goodies.

In the world of these sixty-ish robbers, an old ethic of Robin Hood like morality prevailed. Don't snitch. Rob from those that can afford to be robbed. Don't use violence. Quite a contrast from the world of crime in Latin America today.

At the end the documentary makes a broad pass. Xochi, Fantomas and his parakeet El Burrero, Carrizo, and others. They reflect on their sentences and whether they will be dead before sentences will expire. The film is good at exposing their humanity and we sympathize with them to some extent. Nevertheless they are criminals and deserve to be where they are. What's unfair is that with them behind bars should be some among federal authorities and politicians. Alas the impunity of the latter is what we observe.
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4/10
Predicable and tiresome social propaganda
11 August 2009
The issue this film deals with is a young woman prevented to get an education. The treatment is overly didactic. It feels too much like "feel good" social propaganda.

It does not help that non-professional actors are used. Acting is amateurish. Fortunately the camera work is professional. Curiously that adds to the general feeling that this is government propaganda. There are jabs at backwards social practices of rural provinces. Theater is used as a medium to educate the local communities of their backward ways and convince local folks to change.

All of this is for a good cause. Yet, being propaganda, it is predicable and tiresome. I would have left the cinema if it were not for a subsequent short.
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Food, Inc. (2008)
9/10
Must-see documentary for anyone who eats
8 June 2009
It is said that if you like eating sausage, you better not see how it is made. If you like eating meat, don't watch an animal being killed. If you have your fill of fruits and vegetables daily, don't think about the pesticides that coat them.

Our modern society has sanitized the presentation of food so that we can blissfully ignore what we should be concerned with: where food comes from, how it is raised, picked, handled, altered, transported and sold. Instead our attention is focused only on the awesome number of beautiful packages on market shelves, the unblemished fruits and vegetables available year round. In our increasingly artificial world appearance trumps taste, price trumps provenance, and industrialization gives us a false sense of safety.

It is therefore opportune to have the release of "Food, Inc". After you see it, you'll probably not shop for food in the same way. You may even change the kinds of food you eat. Not enough to convince me to become a vegetarian, but the ubiquitousness of corn and its derivatives, stated multiple times in the film, has made scouring of package labels a routine. The easy rule of not buying anything that contains more than five ingredients more frequently obeyed.

The film contains material that has already been brought out by others, for examples, (1) the problem of genetically modified seeds crossing into properties that do not want them and (2) the appalling conditions in which farm animals are kept. Some material is stressed too much, for example, the whole issue surrounding the tragic death of a kid from a very virulent form of E.coli and the attempts to establish regulations that might prevent such deaths. Individual cases are worth mentioning, but systemic and widespread issues are more compelling. The death of one is no doubt a tragedy but the impairment of thousands is of greater social consequence.

The issue of food regulation in general is a subject that I would have liked to see more of. The adverse effect of more regulation (as per the example above) can be too much regulation. The subject is briefly broached by the "good farmer" (Joel Salatin) who kills his chickens in the open. Ironically those chickens are likely to be more healthy and tasty. Regulation may eliminate this practice. Regulation can therefore have a negative impact on food culture. One of the best example of this is preventing the importation into the US of many delicious young unpasteurized cheese from Europe or even the marketing of such cheese by US producers. How many get sick from those cheese compared to the number of sick from peanut butter or spinach?

The film unwittingly projects a bit of naiveté in a couple of places. The segment about an individual being sued by a food conglomerate and essentially losing for lack of money is not news. This is a capitalist system: more money, better lawyers, almost certain victory. Yet the point is well taken that the food conglomerates are behaving in thuggish ways and acting with the protection of a complicit government (the best money can buy). But again, uncontrolled capitalism generates monopolies and they will fight tooth and nail to retain control and squash any semblance of competition. It's the logic of the beast. This not limited to food. Since voting habits have brought the US to this state of affairs, our only recourse as consumers is to eat bananas, and only bananas, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's called the Chiquita Diet.

In any case, this is a must-see documentary. The director is to be commended for having the courage of tackling this very important topic.

Don't forget to buy a five gallon basket of popcorn dripping with oleo and a big soda with plenty of high fructose corn syrup before going into the screening room. It may be the last time you do.
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7 Virgins (2005)
8/10
Teenager temporarily out of a reformatory meets wild friends
6 June 2009
A teenager spending his last 90 days at a reformatory is allowed out for a few days to attend his brother's wedding. The brother picks him up during his work shift and drops him at home warning that he should not misbehave lest his future freedom may be jeopardized. The teen does not waste any time getting together with his best friends and other buddies from the local gang. The rest of the film follows the actions of these teens, some from broken families.

The essential tension throughout is to know whether the reformatory teen will manage to keep out of trouble. He is surrounded by friends that are a wild bunch. Loyalty to friends, the thought of having to go back to the reformatory and putting the future at risk are clearly in conflict. Temptations are many and events produce their own impetus.

The ending reminded me of the French classic "Les 400 Coups".

The young actors are very good and the two principals particularly so.
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8/10
Artful diary of a sophisticated high class escort
5 June 2009
Curious about the life of an escort? If you are a young beautiful woman considering a career as a high-class call girl, this film should give you a glimpse on what it takes be one. It is not a comprehensive how-to but it gives a few insides.

If you are an heterosexual male, you will not tire to look at Sasha Grey, the woman playing the escort Chelsea. Her sphinxlike beauty and charm is magnetic. Whenever she is on the screen, which is most of the time, you will not be able to concentrate on anything else.

The film is made up of vignettes that are sliced up and mixed up. There is no outright sense of forward time. Events occur and reoccur here and there. Still one manages to accumulate information. It's not enough to piece together a coherent story but enough to construct the kind of experiences that an escort may have and the kind of men that use them.

Once you accept the time non-linearities, you come to marvel at the expertise of the editing. Somehow the disconnected occurrences build up to an overall sense of the escort's life. This one a bit different in that the escort has a steady relationship that borders on the pimp.

The sound and music design is brilliant. At the only moment when I thought the music was not what the film needed, I was corrected by a shot of the musician playing the music. A live shot of an artist banging his percussive instruments somewhere in New York city, the venue for most of the film's action.
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Cuvari noci (2008)
7/10
Bed, bath and beyond night-shift in Sarajevo
26 May 2009
A department store has closed for the day. It's time for night security to begin its patrol. The bed furniture floor is looked after by the young Mahir. Bath furnishings by middle-aged Brizla.

Just beyond the street-level glass doors of the main entrance is an apartment building. On a second floor apartment lives Specijalac, a borderline insane insomniac that is about to spend the night either smoking on a bench facing the department store or playing martial music and drinking beer on a small veranda.

What does this trio bring to the film? Not a lot that could contribute to a story. In fact there is no story. You are about to spend a night with those fellas. Nothing more. Close to ninety minutes of your time.

Are they at least interesting characters? Not really. Mahir is suffering from a momentary virus that is giving him a belly-ache that he relieves with warm compresses. He spends time on the phone with his girlfriend. I guess she also suffers from insomnia.

Brizla is trying to lose weight without success. He's also a follower of a self-help guru whose tapes he listens in between patrol rounds. Similarly to Mihar, he is a taciturn man. Probably the result of or a cause for working in a deserted place while the rest of society sleeps.

The oddball figure is Specijalac. From his perch on the small veranda of his small apartment he vociferates against society. Does he have post-traumatic syndrome disease from the Bosnia-Serbia war?

The interest the film generates in the viewer comes not from the characters and what you learn about them. It comes from the setting, the cinematography, naturalistic minimalist acting and bits of deadpan humor. The well laid out furniture sets and the lines of bathroom fixtures make for a curiously homely feeling without it being a residence. The characters feel at home in that environment. Mahir lays on a bed to watch a portable TV. Brizla reads a book seating in a dry jacuzzi. It's their kingdom for the night. It's also a visual playground for the camera. The director makes good use of wide format to frame objects.

The overall result is an odd film that is not completely satisfying but is still able to hold one's attention
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The Good Boy (2005)
8/10
Boxing and bank robbery mix in this fine drama
25 May 2009
A young boxer down on his luck -- injured hand, mother about to be evicted, a good friend in trouble -- is approached by an ex-pat, now from Argentina, con-man. This shady and smooth operator takes advantage of the young boxer and involves him in bank robbery.

The story is more complicated than that however. Little by little secrets about and connecting the major characters are revealed. We come to see each character's behavior in a different light. The ending is poetic.

Tango music and tango-y hip-hop are fine accompaniments. The actors are excellent especially the one playing Vidal, the cool bank robber.
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9/10
Slow-paced and captivating political mystery with a subterranean anarchist impulse
21 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The plot of this film develops like good minimalist music. A pleasant tune repeated over and over with minor variations. For a film such as "The Limits of Control", the number of repetitions may seem excessive, but they are essential in building a subtle interpretation that crystallizes at the end. At every repetition a different actor or actress interacts with the hero. Notice their continent or country of origin: African, Haitian, French, Spaniard, English, Japanese, Mexican, Palestinian, even an American. I may have gotten some of the nationalities wrong, but the crucial point is that they represent a diverse sampling of the world population. What do they have in common? They are all working together for a common purpose. Their enemy is revealed at the end. Arrogant, imperialistic, trying to control everyone and everything on this earth. Its symbolic representations in the film may not be picked up early on, but by the end one can easily replay its omnipresence right from scene one.

It should be easy to understand the political message before the curtains come down, but just to be sure, the final call to arms that accompanies the credits makes obvious the film's anarchist leaning. In this there is a delightful irony. For a story whose overarching philosophy is the destruction of excessive control in the world, the minimalist plot development is controlled to a precise degree. The steely hero is a model of self-control, precise habits, and consistent suits. Each stage in the travels of the hero is almost a replay of the previous state: the same two espressos, the same Boxeur matchbox but for alternating red and green, the same hiding place for secret messages, the similar three lined letters-and-numbers coded message, the same method of disposing of the message, the same introductory question and similar subsequent culture-laced monologue we eventually come to expect from each co-conspirator cameo.

Superimposed on this repetitive structure are the cultural references. Some are clearly meant to be humorous and subject to additional interpretation. The best for me what a wig wearer who uses a skull to hold the wig when not in use. A camera close up reveals this to be the cadaverous head of Andy Warhol.

Art plays a part. Our hero is a museum goer. It is natural to suspect that each visit to the museum to see one particular work of art whose subject matches a prop that will be used to contact the next co-conspirator serves a purpose. Are these part of the secret instructions? I think the answer is given by the last visit to the museum. The piece is a white sheet covering an underlying canvas. We don't know what is painted on that canvas. We only see the white sheet. Precisely! There is nothing that needs to be seen. That's the point for that stage in the film. Well done!

There are bits of cinema commentary that I saw as poking fun at Hollywood. The multiplex crowd expects James Bond to get in bed with the first beauty that crosses his path; our hero does not do sex while working. The same crowd wants guns to be used; our hero dumps the only gun in the film in the trash bin. The crowd cares to see the hero fight to get his quarry; our hero never fights, corners his quarry with imagination and we never see how he does it. The crowd is thrilled by lots of silly threatening dialogue and much action before good vanquishes evil; our hero is terse and wastes little time. The typical Hollywood villains have to be at least equal and often more cunning than the good guys so that the battle is suspenseful; our villain is a bumbling fool who gets trapped by his own paranoia-driven security apparatus. And so on. It's the anti-Hollywood film par excellence. No wonder it does not do well with that crowd.

Commentary on cinema culture is also there. When a cell phone rings inside the bag of a co-conspirator, our hero takes the phone, throws it on the floor and stomps on it. Ah, quiet! I wish I could do the same to all the electronic gadgets with their bright screens that more and more people are using during movie screenings.

In short, there is more than meets the eyes here. The film is made enjoyable by the need keep track of three components. One, the easiest, following the plot, which is simple and advances slowly. Two, picking up the political message, which is mostly done late. Three, deciphering the asides and symbolic clues that are peppered throughout.

If that were not enough, add to the overall enjoyment superb cinematography and delectable music. And don't be upset by the occasional pessimist view on the human condition. When the guitar player concludes his monologue with "La vida no vale nada," you'll come to understand it later. (And by way there is no accompanying legend.)

A final word for those cinephiles in the Third World. Remember how you felt at the end of the closing scene of the film "Queimada", when Brando gets it? "The Limits of Control" will make you relive it.
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6/10
Vampires at an advertisement agency create havoc on themselves
23 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Theater of the absurd featuring vampires is the alternative summary for this bizarre Gothic concoction. I came to it on account of the established reputation of the venue. I can't say I was satisfied, but nor was I put off. The whole thing is so weird and exaggerated that it rises to the level of parody.

The Raven advertisement agency is a rundown, rat infested, retro place populated by snidey and arrogant employees. Alice Blue is a newbie hired on a Friday and working her first full Monday as the movie opens. In a period of five weekdays, Alice will morph from a meek girl to a confident killing machine. It will be a bloody Friday afternoon. TGIF.

The plot is a mash-up, but put that on the account of parody. The important mission of the film is to assemble the requisite action sequences, clichés, and humor. Examples of the later: (1) a vampire sucks a victim dry and suggests they go out to lunch some day; (2) a proposed ad for Nether Wines is to call attention to the nether regions.

The theatrical style of acting enhances the tongue-in-cheek attitude of many characters. The director plays one of the main roles and his droll and goofy demeanor is endearing. It is left to the main actress the role of the transformative character: a dainty start, a grunge makeover, a Gothic look upgrade, a sexual awakening, finally reaching the status of vengeful vamp. If you get my drift.

The battle royal near the end is a great parody which blends the vampire/slasher genre with office politics. During a presentation to a customer, the vampires create mayhem with the tools of the professional class: rulers decapitate, pens penetrate eyes, tacks are hurled at bodies, laptops serve as shields, metal pointers impale chests, security cameras squash heads and so forth. The gore is nicely contained. Before the blood has had the time to dry, the impassive customer will have signed the contract with the agency.

At the end, the meek inherit the store. A biblical ending of sorts. If only office politics could have such satisfying ends.

At the start you'll see "Part I: The Blood-Sucking Vampires of Advertisement". There is no part II. A sequel perhaps? Not for me.
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Pontypool (2008)
7/10
A word is more virulent than a thousand pictures
22 March 2009
One of the things the great Orson Welles is known for is a radio broadcast reporting on an alien invasion. Credulous folks did not see the hoax. Pontypool follows a similar line with Martians replaced by zombies and hoax by satire.

In my hierarchy zombie films are the cheapjack of cinema. Surprising then I would be watching one. Nonetheless I stayed to the end of Pontypool on the strength of its various non-zombie elements.

First, the film brought to mind the radio days of yore, before TV arrived to pollute our living rooms. The evening serials for children with voices and sound effects elicited an imagery of thrilling adventures and exciting conflicts of good versus evil. Would not miss a single episode. In this there was a counterexample to the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Second, the core conceit of a zombie-inducing disease transmitted by a word, or words, ties in nicely with the viral memes of Dawkins. (See his talk at TED for a short explanation.) If the word is mightier than the sword, here a word is more virulent than a bomb. The zombie state is a metaphor for anti-social acts that otherwise normal people are led to commit because their minds have been contaminated.

Third, the self-deprecating humor. The bits about the poisoning of the public airwaves. The chopper-riding reporter in the middle of a blinding snow storm reporting on the traffic. The irritating language tics -- you know -- of some, here captured by endless zombie repetitiveness and the tendency of the zombies to chew their own tongues into a bloody mass. In places the film elevates itself to satire and laughing at the silliness of the explicit plot happens often.

Finally, the superb performance of Stephen McHattie as the morning radio talk show host of the small AM 660 CLSY station in Pontypool. If there is a single reason to watch this film it is McHattie.

The film is beautifully economical. The entire action, except for the opening scene, takes places in a radio station. As such the film is mostly words. In that it is self-referential: a film about a day at a radio station's studio that is a purveyor of words. I would not be surprised to find Pontypool reach the level of cult film.
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Container (2006)
2/10
"Intorably irritating concoction of self-absorbed verbiage and fetishistic imagery
3 February 2009
To watch an avant-garde film is fraught with risk. At times one is rewarded with an imaginative masterpiece, other times one flinches at abominable failure. Alas, "Container" is of the latter kind.

An odd mixture of discordant grainy B&W images and an endless voice-over. Those two components rarely mesh. If feels like watching a muted film and listening to the soundtrack of another.

The imagery is a mixture of transvestism, bacchanals, mild S&M, fetishism, etc. It's not titillating. It is just there as a reminder of the human body as a flexible vehicle for expressing perversions.

The imagery did not bother me. The voice-over did. Spoken in the form of a supplicant whisper throughout, it is persistently irritating. And this before I comment on what is being said.

At first I thought this was a confessions-of-a-trans-gender, a long-winded whining about life's vicissitudes. Later it touches on a variety of subjects: Chernobyl, nihilist thoughts, suicidal musings, and religious drivel. Eventually it ceases to be an individualistic stream of consciousness and morphs into a rambling commentary about humans.

I stayed to the bitter end on account of the advertised promise by an admirer that the end would bring a twist. I felt angry to be duped. The last five minutes are as bad as the first five. Only the most die-hard avant-gardistes should waste their time with "Container".
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5/10
Slow and elliptical story about a would-be emigrant
29 January 2009
A slow, excessively long, threadbare story about an Algerian who is planning to emigrate. Many long takes of people doing simple things: brewing coffee, walking on the streets of Algiers, washing floors, etc. There is an endless drive through an unpopulated new housing development with the camera in the back seat. Five minutes of that would have been more than enough to tell us that the driver is lost in an area where streets remain to be named. Most of this is pointless as far as plot development. It's a style of cinema that adopts the view that the mundane tasks of daily life are worth watching for extended periods of time.

The first sixty minutes is a slog. Then a spark happens in the form of a police official who injects some thoughts. While he is on the screen the movie is at its strongest, which isn't saying much. A couple of dramatic events close the film to the relief of those who did not leave the theater before.
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Babooska (2005)
8/10
Insightful documentary on the daily life of members of a modest circus
28 May 2008
A year in the life of members of a troupe of circus performers. The circus is named Il Floriciccio.

It starts with the 20th birthday party of Babooska and ends with her 21th. From winter through summer and back to winter, travelling from small town to small town in northern Italy and performing often to meager audiences.

We see little of the circus performances. The documentary concentrates instead on a few of the troupe's members, especially Babooska and her family. It is an insightful, behind-the-tarp look at their daily life, living in motor homes and moving frequently, dealing with ailments that force sudden changes in personnel, coping with town bureaucracies and irate restaurant owners who feel the circus is trespassing on their turf.

The film closes with one of Babooska's performances: the Hula-Hoop. Quaint.
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9/10
Three characters face the small pains of life
12 May 2008
The device of intersecting threads is used here en passant. Three individuals -- a man, a young woman, a mid-aged woman -- wait for an evening city bus. They are strangers and not speaking to each other. Across the street, a fancy car pulls over. A man comes out, opens the back door and walks a small dog to the curb. He ties the dog to a hydrant (or something fixed, I can't remember). He drives off leaving the puzzled dog alone. The three individuals watch this. When the car is gone, they realize the driver has abandoned the dog. They are outraged and decide to rescue the dog. That's how the film opens.

The three characters will not cross paths again except through a very unimportant indirect connection. Each person is dealt with within its own thread. We alternate between the three.

We don't get to follow what happens every day of the 53 day period. We sample. Each day is introduced on the screen: lunes, martes, viernes, lunes, martes, miercoles, jueves, viernes. We jump to febrero and resume the sampling of the days of the week: miercoles, domingo, lunes.

The man is married, has a son, and a job that does not pay particularly well. The pregnant wife if expecting twins. A family of five is going to be a financial stress. Things begin to fall apart.

The young woman is a string instrument musician. She is trying to get accepted into a quartet run by her male teacher. What price is she willing to pay to be accepted? Hope and disappointment.

The middle-aged single woman is a teacher who has been attacked by one of her student. Her confidence has been shattered. After a rest period she restarts teaching with some apprehension. She is also trying to spruce her life with a male presence despite her tendency to be a loner. Will she succeed?

On the side, there is Felix the dog. A minor role but a reminder that animals also have bad days.

At the core of these stories are the vicissitudes of life and how persons face up to them. It's the oscillation between the short moments of happiness and the lengthier moments of sadness. It's heartbreak. It's money problems. It's treachery. It's life.

There are no wasted scenes. The style is crisp. The end is hopeful but the last scene is a perfect distillation of the thematic core of the three narratives.
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Yo (2007)
9/10
Clever mystery where deception is the name of the game
12 May 2008
Mallorca. A German man named Hans comes into town to replace the previous garden manager, also named Hans, on a small estate owned by a wealthy German. The latter is an unstable and demanding boss. If that were not enough stress for Hans, the locals are unfriendly towards him.

Weird things begin to happen and Hans is confounded. The weirdness piles up and our attempts at sorting out the growing number of plot elements seem futile. Our curiosity is peaking.

If you are the kind of cinephile who likes to work out solutions to mysteries, you will reach a point where you start to reconsider all your assumptions. It's back to square one. Right then, the critical scene occurs. It lasts seconds, so don't blink. Hans has a aha moment that explains what has happened so far and he shares it with us through a glancing remark. You say: Of course! Clever!

It's the film's midpoint. With the view cleared we enter the second half with a renewed comprehension. Yet a dead body puts our certainty to question. What sort of plot element is this? Hans does not give us any other hints. He is complicit with the plot's obfuscations. The end puts everything into perspective.
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Mi guo (2008)
8/10
Slow paced, moody story of loss and love
29 April 2008
When a family man drives his taxi car into the Yangtze river and his body disappears, wife and teenager son are left to take care of an injured hooker that was riding the taxi at the time of the accident. The premise is strange for a western mind. I guess the Chinese culture has its traditional ways of dealing with tort.

How the threesome interrelate is what the film is about. There are a few additional ancillary characters that are necessary for us to better understand the three principals, but the attention is on the latter. The gradually changing relations are finely observed. The son's increasing fixation on the hooker. The mother's loss of control of a son that is coming of age. The hooker's experienced observation of the people around her. It's slow placed but almost never boring.

At the end, the so far moody treatment is upset by an attempt to resolve a minor mystery that by then had become superfluous. Poor idea. It would have been fine to leave it unresolved. The tightened narrative comes close to resorting to well-used formulas and breaking up its hard won spell. As we reach the closing scenes, the film regains its composure and only hints at a solution.

The director calls his style "poetic realism". A style that feels a little bit self-indulgent -- to take a hint from the title -- but in the sure hands of the director, it pulls us in close to the life, thoughts and feelings of the characters.

The gorgeous piano music composed for the film is a perfect accompaniment. The vocal piece apparently was an instant popular success in China a few years ago.

This is a second in a series of three filmed in the same city along the Yangtze river. The first was called "Curiosity Kills the Cat". The third should be released by 2009.
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4/10
Cute animation spoiled by a flimsy story
6 April 2008
Animation and live action combined. The animation is generally good. The live action is competently done. Unfortunately the whole is spoiled by a poorly conceived story.

I cannot make a lot of sense of the story. It involves a young woman who loses her wallet which is recovered by a kid who takes secret lessons from a piano teacher who crosses path with the kid's mother and love is in the air. Concurrently the young woman gets a temporary job cataloguing notes for a woman who lives in a building with a warehouse-like manned elevator. The elevator man gets a fix on the young woman and meets her at a singing bar where he plays guitar. I suppose it ends with everyone living happily ever after.

I held for an excruciating seventy minutes hoping the story would get somewhere interesting. I gave up, defeated by the childish tenor of the narrative, the uninspiring surrealism, the flimsy narrative connection between animation and live action and, principally, the poorly conceived screenplay.

Part of the problem is that the audience for this film is ill-defined. Children may enjoy the animation bits but not a lot more. Teenagers are out of the question. Adults may be bored by the narrative that drives the animated characters.

It's too bad this is a flop for there is talent here. Clearly good technique and imagination are on display when it comes to animation.

The title's reversal of the traditional children's game may be clever, but the forced justification, done through a flashback, is an annoying contrivance.
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7/10
Life after Katrina for a couple from New Orleans 9th ward
6 April 2008
Hurricane Katrina 2005. The ravage of New Orleans. The flooding of the ninth ward. A couple who did not evacuate tells a story of survival and the consequences.

The couple in question is the subject of this documentary. It blends newsreels and footage taken by the couple and the directors. It's not polished, but it's real.

We see amateur shots of the period immediately preceding the arrival of the hurricane, the storm itself, the rising water, the flood aftermath. The couple moves out of New Orleans not intent in coming back. Eventually they do come back and rebuild.

The problem with this documentary is that the exciting part comes at the start. As it gathers distance from the tragic events, it loses steam and eventually becomes borderline boring.

The most pointed line, said by a mother to her son as regard the occupation of Iraq: "You're not going to fight for a country that does not give a damn about you."

There's quite of bit of rap composed by the wife. If you like rap, it's pretty good.
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Foster Child (2007)
8/10
The crude business of orphan fostering and adoption
6 April 2008
If you like or did not like the film "Kubrador", you will like or not like the early going of "Foster Child". If you are on the negative side, don't give up.

The issue I have with both films is what I call "detailism", a fascination with the minutiae of daily life. Examples from "Foster Child": A woman enters a slum with the camera following her every move, every narrow alleyway, every encounter she makes with the local residents, every bit of small talk, every word she utters, all the way to her final destination deep in the bowels of the slum. A mother prepares to give a tub bath to her child, dumps water on him, soaps, rubs, rinses, dries and applies talc with the kid peeing outside the tub somewhere along the whole proceeding. A teenager starts to prepare a meal, picks up a sauté pan, places it on the stove, cleverly pierces a small bag containing cooking oil, squeezes the bag to the last drop, picks up a can, grabs a large knife, proceeds to cut open the can top (a risky proposition but the boy is adept), pours the contents onto the pan, picks up a utensil, stirs the food, and so on. This style of cinematography gets old fairly quickly. At one point a family prepares to have dinner. I could not believe we would be forced to watch the entire dinner. To my great relief, it did not happen.

It was about the dinner scene that the director changed tack and tightened the narrative. Slowly but surely the emotional core of the story takes shape. The climatic ending forces one to reevaluate the early "detailism" and accept that some of it was painfully pertinent.

The actors are good. The woman who plays an adoption agent is the perfect Janus. Her cheery and chatty demeanor does not quite hide a crude business mindset.

Central to the story is the notion that fostering is not forever; a foster mother now, a former mother next. Overall an allegory on capitalism: the well oiled for-profit machinery of goods allocation and the disregard for the social consequences.
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8/10
Classic love story with an ominous twist
6 April 2008
Somewhere on Thailand's south coast. A sleepy town not too far from the beach. A young architect with business to care of in the area checks in at a shabby hotel for a two months stay. The owner/manager is a young woman. It's love at first sight though the relationship matures slowly.

The bulk of the film plays as a classic love story with a Thai flavor. What's different is the presence of an ominous threat that seems to hang in the air. A relative of the woman does not seem too happy with the developing relationship. It's a shady character. The danger filled atmosphere is enhanced by a nice ethereal music. The ending is a total surprise. It's a metaphorical tsunami with an uncomfortable sense of poetic justice.
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La zona (2007)
7/10
Third world class struggle police thriller
6 April 2008
In any large city of Latin America or the rest of the third world, wealth and poverty coexist side by side, not uncommonly separated by just a thin high wall. In typical fashion the rich appropriate the bulk of the country's wealth, a few of the poor reclaim a tiny portion back through robbery and muggings, and the rich react in turn by protecting themselves and even striking back. It's low intensity class warfare.

La Zona is an enclave, a walled-city with massive iron gates, widely scattered security cameras and around-the-clock monitoring. It's the modern equivalent of the medieval castle. Laying siege is a slum, where live the nemeses of the inhabitants of La Zona. They have come to this enclave out of fear, for protection against further assaults, to enjoy the good life in a secure haven. Many are angry. Some have been victims. Some are vengeful.

The story begins when, during a storm, the wall is breached and electrical power is lost. A threesome from the slum takes advantage to penetrate the enclave and steal a few things. The temporary invasion does not go well. Shots are exchanged. People die. That event sets the wheels of the thriller in motion.

The typical characters are present. The honest police investigator whose work is subverted by a corrupt police department. The good bad-guy, the bad bad-guy, the good good-guy and the bad good-guy. They are all there, some in multiple copies. It's formulaic, but effective.
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Megane (2007)
9/10
Charming simple story with a whiff of mystery
6 April 2008
An easygoing film that is as satisfying as a refreshing sea breeze during a summer night at the beach. Impeccably done and acting that is superbly measured.

The location is a small island near Okinawa. White sandy beaches and paradisaical transparent waters. A woman flies in and walks to a guest house near a beach. The place, called Hamada, is not easy to find but she does. It's Spring. Off-season. Hamada is operating but the woman is the only guest. The place is run by a cheery and nononsense man that is also the cook. Other characters include an older enigmatic woman that comes to help and a young teacher at a local school. We don't learn a lot about who these people are. This is fine for it lends a whiff of mystery, especially regarding the older woman.

The film is primarily about the transformation of the young woman as she is drawn into the unhurried atmosphere that permeates the island and Hamada. She slowly succumbs to the local habits.

Despite its slowness, it is never boring. Plenty of whimsical offbeat humor to keep us going. Also plenty of food on display. By the end I was hungry.
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