Volume 3, Number 5
This Week's Reviews: A Time for Drunken Horses, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, Groundhog Day, Malèna, Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, A Brief History of Time.
This Week's Omissions: Head Over Heels, I'm the One that I Want, Left Behind: The Movie, Valentine.
|A Time for Drunken Horses
(Dir: Bahman Ghobadi, Starring Ayoub Ahmadi, Madi Ekhtiar-dini, Amaneh Ekhtiar-dini, Rojin Younessi, Kolsolum Ekhtiar-dini, Karim Ekhtiar-dini, Rahman Salehi, Osman Karimi, and Nezhad Ekhtiar-dini)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Bahman Ghobadi's A Time for Drunken Horses looks and feels exactly like its country. Iranian films have a very distinct touch that makes a very deliberate mark in their resiliency to repetition. The country seems to have a real feel for visceral filmmaking -- instinctive camera shots that tell more than most monologues ever could.
For Bahman Ghobadi, making simply an Iranian film for his first feature, however, would be too much a political stance for the Iranians. Ghobadi is an Iranian that grew up Kurdish, a race of people situated in-between the borders of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. They constitute no threat to Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government, but he considers them to be the bane of his existence. The only reason that they have not been bombed yet is that they live in a no-fly zone enforced by the United States.
For the characters of A Time for Drunken Horses, a border patrol can be a harrowing yet everyday experience. As the small children at the center of the story ride home from working as package wrappers at the nearest market, they are stopped at the Kurd/Iran border and taken out for a check-up. Unfortunately, this day the driver of the truck has decided to smuggle children's exercise books, which leads to the truck being impounded, the driver being executed, and the children walking the long trek home.
In the beginning, we meet three of these children. Narrating is Amaneh (Amaneh Ekhtiar-dini), a young adolescent entranced with the world that has been given to her family. Her older brother Ayoub (Ahmadi) has become the paternal force of their household since their father left on his last fight to smuggle stuff across the borders and their mother's death in the birth of their youngest sister.
Amaneh and Ayoub work sometimes to make money, so that they can help their uncle pay for the many drugs that 15-year-old Madi needs to survive. He has a lifelong disease that has stunted him into a twisted body barely two-feet tall. He may be older than the other two, but he certainly seems like he is merely three or four years of age.
When the local township's doctor tells Ayoub that Madi needs a surgery immediately to prolong his life a few months (according to him, even with the surgery, Madi only has about six months left), it becomes the purpose of Ayoub's life to get Madi the money for the surgery and across the border to have it done. Taking on the job of smuggling, he begins the attempt to make the money needed while his uncle begins a deal with a nearby extended family to trade for the surgery.
There are some truly breathtaking moments in this film, especially the final shot which has the depth to feel like an end without allowing a convoluted epilogue to get in the way. I truly think that Ghobadi is one of the finer directors to come out of the Middle East since Abbas Kiarostami even though he still has much to learn. This film was awarded the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this past year for best first feature, and that really breaks into why this film can be held in higher regard better than otherwise. I certainly think that there is a great deal of talent in Ghobadi and that he will prove to be fine artist in the years to come. Nevertheless, A Time for Drunken Horses does not tap on to the emotional charge that is needed in a film like this. The actors are all fine in their first performances, but there is something missing in the movement from filming to screen -- it's almost like the cinematographer used a filter to take out all the sharpness.
Beautiful vistas are always nice to see, but there is
still an unredeemable need for something more. A Time for Drunken Horses is less
than 90 minutes in length, working on a story that could have easily amassed into a 120
minute documentary (as Roger Ebert remarked, there is little doubt that most of what we
see is actually happening) and would have probably been a better film for it. Looking at
the film's most endearing character, the sadly deformed Madi, we can only imagine what his
life is really like. And, at the same time, yearn to learn more. Some directors go too far
with what they are trying to say (latter day Oliver Stone, for example), but Ghobadi cuts
his film short. It could have been huge, heartbreaking, and mesmerizing. As it is now,
it's notable but lacking.
|Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse
(Dir: Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, and Eleanor Coppola, Appearances by Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Sheen, John Milius, Eleanor Coppola, Laurence Fishburne, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall, George Lucas, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, Sofia Coppola, Gia Coppola, Roman Coppola, and Marlon Brando)
BY: DAVID PERRY
"The man is clear in his mind but his soul is mad. Oh yeah, he's dying, I think -- he hates all this. He hates it ... What are they going to say, man, when he's gone: cause he dies when it dies -- when it dies, he dies. What are they going to say about him? Are they going to say that he was a kind man, he was a wise man, he had plans, he had wisdom? Bullshit, man."
That was what Dennis Hopper's photojournalist said of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in 1979's Apocalypse Now. What is so important about this quote is that it could very easily be said about Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola. The hell that Coppola went through on the set of that landmark film has been immortalized thanks to the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. In the years since Apocalypse Now's release, so many films in the same niche have been made (even a straight adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was made with Tim Roth and John Malkovich in the Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando characters, respectively), but nothing has ever compared to that film. To this day, even with attempts by Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone, and Roland Joffé, no one has made a Vietnam film near the depths of Coppola's film (though Stone's Platoon could be considered the closest anyone has come).
But, I would not say that this fact is such a great thing for Coppola or a great debit for the other three filmmakers. Each of those men survived their tenure filming the battlefields and continued to make great, large-scale films afterwards. Not Coppola -- what happened to him on Apocalypse Now nearly killed him and his career has not been the same since.
All the occurrences that lead to the demise of Francis Ford Coppola's psyche are found in Hearts of Darkness, with is only available thanks to the fact that Coppola sanctioned his wife to film the production to make a documentary for United Artists when doing promotional work. What Eleanor Coppola's camera saw is fortunate -- Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is one of the greatest making of' documentaries ever made.
Apocalypse Now was brought to the heads of various studios in 1968, a project that would be written by John Milius, produced by Francis Ford Coppola, and directed by George Lucas. The three men were complete unknowns at the time and the project was scoffed at, not only because it was the brainchild of three novice artists, but also that America was still engaged in the Vietnam War and a dramatization seemed way too soon.
Milius became a ghostwriter (he still remains uncredited for his work on Dirty Harry and Jaws), Lucas became a huge box office draw (and that's only for American Graffiti, Star Wars was still to come), and Francis Ford Coppola became the critic's darling of 1972 (The Godfather) and 1974 (The Godfather, Part II and The Conversation). By 1976, they had the credits to get the green light from United Artists -- with a nice budget of $15 million in an eighty-day shoot.
By the time Apocalypse Now was released in 1979, Lucas had dropped out, the ending receipt came to $30 millions with the dividend coming from Coppola's pocket, over 250 days had been spent filming, the lead had suffered a heart attack, the star had made the set a living hell, and new director Francis Ford Coppola was ready to shoot himself in the head. Apocalypse Now could very well be considered the most problematic film production ever.
Eleanor Coppola's camera was there ever step of the way, even recording some private conversations with her husband without Francis knowing. What we now have is a visual record of a film that literally fell to the wayside. The fact that it would become one of the greatest films ever made is surprising. Like Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons and A Touch of Evil, it is hard to believe that a production straying so far from the director's original intent could still remain a masterpiece. In some ways, the all out nightmare of the filming comes off in the film and it is the better for it.
Francis Ford Coppola is lucky to have survived the film (when the movie wrapped, he had dropped over 100 pounds) and everything he has made since has been more humanistic than those deep and dark films of the 1970's. I still like some of his late works (including Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and The Godfather, Part III) but none of his creations have come near those four masterpieces that came out over the course of seven years. He was one of the hotshot kids from the 1970's and Apocalypse Now made him into an adult. Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese grew more mature but never lost the edge of youth -- of course, they never lived through a metaphorical train wreck like Coppola did.
Every film student should be forced to watch Hearts
of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. Not only will it teach them the dilemmas of a
film set, but also keep them from going over the deep end like Coppola did. Even still,
I'm sorry that he did but thankful that it was for something as important as Apocalypse
(Dir: Harold Ramis, Starring Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brian Doyle-Murray, Marita Geraghty, Angela Paton, Rick Doucommun, Rick Overton, and Robin Duke)
BY: DAVID PERRY
"Well what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today."
For Phil Connors (Murray), life is a listless attempt to be as cocky and off-putting as possible. No one really likes him that much and the feeling seems to be mutual. He seems to have a little fun as the weatherman on a Pittsburgh network news show, but is unhappy that it has to be such a small station. And Groundhog Day -- few things bring such ire as the yearly visit to Punxsutawney to cover the Groundhog Day festivities.
But then something happens -- over and over and over again. It seems that through some miracle, he has been stranded to live that day forever or at least until he can get it right. For him, this is a chance to try so many different things. There are no consequences to his actions since everything is back to normal the next morning as the Sonny and Cher tune "I Got You Babe" marks 6:00 AM.
There is a magical appeal to Groundhog Day, something that has not really been seen in most of the films that have come from Bill Murray. I love the guy and all, thinking that his film prior to Groundhog Day, What About Bob?, was one of the funniest films of 1991, but he had never really shown the incredible actor that he is. In this film, he has the chance to show many different sides of one character and makes the most of it. It is one of his greatest performances, probably the best before his work in 1998's Rushmore.
I have long had a great deal of respect for Groundhog Day but had never really seen it as the incredible little film that it is. Having the chance to see it on the actual holiday in a theatre, I finally saw what a wonderful experience it is. There are moments that are funny in that Bill Murray way, mixed perfectly with some charming and even deep moments. For the first time, I really felt the sadness that he conveys as he strains to stop fate from killing an old homeless man through different days.
What marks this film is that it never really makes itself pretentious and does not become repetitive. Considering the story, it would have been really easy to become guilty on both counts, but writers Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin understand that relating a reason for this happening could have been the downfall of an otherwise enjoyable, imaginative movie.
As for redundancy, Ramis and editor Pembroke J. Herring know how to time everything, getting each moment right without pushing it too far. Each time we see something for the third or fourth time, it is with a different mood for Murray to portray and the stuff in-between that would be nearly a facsimile of before is excised. The film is nearly 105 minutes in length, but it certainly feels much shorter. When the movie gets to the climax, I had a hard time believing that the time had already come for it.
I'm quite happy that a film as great as Groundhog Day
has remained respected in the years since its release. Unlike other films that have
used holidays as jumping boards (most notably the recent mistake The Family Man),
Groundhog Day uses its holiday for as much a fun joke as for a setting. Not only
do we get to see the festivities, we get to see them criticized, ruined, intellectualized,
and abducted. And that's only four of the days.
(Dir: Giuseppe Tornatore, Starring Giuseppe Sulfaro, Monica Bellucci, Luciano Federico, Matilde Piana, Pietro Notaarianni, Gaetano Aronica, Gilberto Idonea, Angelo Pellegrino, Gabriella Di Luzio, Pippo Provvidenti, Maria Terranova, Elisa Morucci, and Giuseppe Pattavina)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Everyone has a secret admiration of their past -- someone that they truly loved but could never relate the feeling thanks to a fear of it not being returned. Those are the true loves of our lives -- they never become intimate with us and therefore cannot break our expectations. I remember once heading the quote, "unrequited love is the only true love."
That is the intention of Giuseppe Tornatore's Malèna, a look at the little obsession that changed one boy in the middle of fascist Italy. Like 1999's Tea with Mussolini, the youth is meant as a viewer of the political unrest going around the land -- the difference this time is that his catalyst is not a group of frumpy old ladies, but a beautiful temptress.
Monica Bellucci is the title character, a woman that walks the streets of the fictitious Italian town of Castelcuta with every man yearning for her and every woman wanting to kill her. But she is taken -- her husband is currently fighting for Mussolin's army and she is only in town to take care of her father, the local Latin teacher. However, nothing is the same when some news comes across and she becomes a woman of disrepute, dying her hair and making friends with the local hussy.
Yet none of this can stop the way she attracts young Renato (Sulfaro), who sees her for the first time when he is finally considered worthy of joining the local fraternal outfit after his acquisition of a new bike. She gracefully walks by and the other boys yearn for her body as a sexual play toy. But Renato sees a woman, the person that could make him a man. The other children consider him to be stuck in childish feelings -- a growth from the fact that his father will not let him wear long pants.
Malèna has affairs with some men of the town and her name is tarnished, but he still remains transfixed by her -- less by her beauty and more by her essence. He cannot go up to her and tell of his hopes and desires, but can only imagine the great lives that they could lead together, many of which are created for the camera in the form of old movie clips. He can only sit there in the tree outside her house, watching everything that happens in her home through a small hole -- a spot with a view of her dancing with a picture of her husband to the beautiful song "Ma L'Amore, No..." and the non-stop attempts by men to gain admission into her bedroom.
And, as the title of slut begins to clasp to her family name and her father comes to find his daughter to be far beyond his imagination of sin, Renato continues in his love. And that is what makes this film watchable in the first half of the film. Both of the actors are terrific at making their characters work in a fashion that is both mesmerizing and beautiful. Renato could have been another pubescent boy of American films like Losin' It and American Pie, but instead he becomes as deep and textured as a real, three-dimensional person is.
And Monica Bellucci -- wow. She is not an actress along the lines of, say, Cate Blanchett, but she certainly does something with her character that could have been nothing more than a tease (ahem, the cast of Coyote Ugly). I had only seen her before this in the lackluster Under Suspicion, but I must admit that she goes far beyond what I had expected -- a performance that could make her a star in the foreign film crowd along the lines of Liv Ullman or Fernanda Monetnegro.
However, there is a reason that I used the division of the first and second half earlier. Tornatore goes the wrong direction in the film's final half, taking it in a spiral of degradation. I did not necessarily oppose the fall from grace that occurs for Malèna, but the way Tornatore's script treats her in one of the film's late moments is purely reprehensible. It does not fit the tone of an otherwise playful film. That moment could turn off nearly anyone that sees the film -- it comes closer to fitting a tough drama like Boys Don't Cry than a nice little coming-of-age film like Malèna.
This mistake could have been a simply debit to the film, but it never really makes up for the misstep. There are little quirky surprises that occur late in the film that lean towards contrivance. When a certain character makes a sudden reappearance, you can actually here the groans of nearly every person in the audience. It's not like Tornatore had not already raked in enough melodrama. Someone in the editing room should have walked up to him and told him to stop the film at the hour and ten minute mark. Or he could have strengthened some thin characters (like Malèna's father or Renato's parents), killing two birds with one stone as he withdrew that bad and made the already good better.
But there is one thing that does get better than before:
the score by Ennio Morricone. Everyone respects Morricone for his work from the 1960's
(the Man with No Name Trilogy) to the 1980's (The Untouchables, The Mission),
but his late work has admitted been less than stellar. I felt horrible panning his work on
both The Legend of 1900 and Mission to Mars, but they were both bad
scores. However, I loved his work on Malèna, which is as good as most of his 390
other scores (or at least those that I have heard). As much as I was upset at Malèna
as the credits rolled, I was still fulfilled by a return to grace from one of the past
|Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the
(Dir: Mark Jonathan Harris, Appearances by Kurt Fuchel, Lorraine Allard, Lory Cahn, Alexander Gordon, Miriam Cohen, Hedy Epstein, Franzi Groszmann, Eva Hayman, Jack Hellman, Bertha Leverton, Ursula Rosenfeld, Inge Sadan, Robert Sugar, Lore Segal, Nicholas Winton, Norbert Wollheim, and Judi Dench)
BY: DAVID PERRY
"I remember V.E. Day very clearly. It was just wonderful, wonderful. We all danced in Piccadilly Circus, and for me, I just thought, well this is it, I'm going to see my parents next week. I went straight back and wrote to both of them -- wrote separate letters because I had separate addresses through the Red Cross messages in Theresienstadt. The letters were returned to me about three, four months later -- took a long time. All it said on the back: "Deported to Auschwitz, October '44."
In the early years of the Nazi occupation of Austria, they wanted rid of every Jew they could find. They had not begun using Jews as slaves in their concentration camps -- they only saw the people as third-class citizens. Soon the Nazis would find a use for them and began the more horrifying period of the Holocaust.
Most people could see that something bad was going to happen in Eastern Europe, but few did anything. As people began to notice, especially Jewish men and women in Austira, that the Nazis were much more than an aggressive power taking over nations, little help came to those caught inside the segregation that the Nazis enforced on the Jews.
As America, France, and other western nations sat by and watched in horror, only one country decided to do something - England, with a 1933 cooperative called the Kindertransport. Every week, the British government would cart in thousands of Austrian and Czech children into their country and house them until they could find a foster family to watch them until their parents could get out of their countries. To leave the Nazi world was tough at that time for anybody, with the regulations covering a person accounting for the emigrant, a visa from the old country, and affirmation from the new country -- all with expiration dates that rarely coincided with each other. Great Britain, at that time, opened up the boundaries for the children -- the Jews happy to save their children and the Nazis happy to be rid of them.
When World War II began, the Kindertransport ended and the children were often left in Britain without any form of mail to or from their parents, most of whom were taken to concentration camps soon after the departure of their children. The new documentary Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport looks at what happened to the Jewish children, orphaned in a far away country. Some of them found solace, some of them found regret -- only now do they see that their parents did something for them that can never be repaid, arguably one of the hardest decisions of their lives.
British men and women opened their homes to these refugees, many of whom came to be just like family over the next nine years. Kurt Fuchel was given to the Cohen family, who would become just as close to him even after the return of his parents years later -- people that lost a seven year old to regain a sixteen year old. For Kurt, his mother is Miriam Cohen (who is still alive and is interviewed for this documentary), even though he only spent a fraction of his life under her roof.
Or there's the story of Ursula Rosenfeld, who was a on the train for England when her father grabbed her arms and took her home. She was later sent with them to a concentration camp, exposed to the horrors that occurred for her family unlike the others. Every week the Nazi executives at the camp they were left in called to take her away, only to mark her off the list and send her back to her parents. When the pain of saying goodbye to her parents for the fourth time finally got to her, she asked to be sent away on the train headed off -- the train took her to Auschwitz (when the war ended she was 16 and weighted 52 pounds).
Holocaust films are always tough to sit through and they often find themselves delving into subjects that each one hold on their own. Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kinderstransport is not as deep and engrossing as The Last Days or as rich and bounteous as Anne Frank Remembered. I consider it to be like director Mark Jonathan Harris' last film, the historically important but reasonably pushy The Long Way Home.
Nevertheless, I respect any film that tries to teach people
about the miserable treatment of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. Beside some other
documentaries of the like, Into the Arms of Strangers does not look as deeply and
rigorously as the others, but it is important. And it should be viewed and saluted for
doing justice to stories that should be told.
|A Brief History of Time
(Dir: Errol Morris, Appearances by Stephen Hawking, Isobel Hawking, Janet Humphrey, Mary Hawking, Basil King, Derek Powney, Norman Dix, Robert Berman, Gordon Berry, Roger Penrose, Dennis Sciama, John Wheeler, Brandon Carter, John Taylor, Kip Thorne, Don Page, Christopher Isham, Brian Whitt, and Raymond Laflamme)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Stephen Hawking was the normal member of the Hawking family. At least that is what is said about him in Errol Morris' 1992 documentary A Brief History of Time. But the truth of the matter is that what Hawking did with his life was not normal -- in fact it was closer to extraordinary. He has done so much in the school of cosmology -- the section of physics that cover the cosmos -- that he could easily be considered one of the most important voices in physics since Einstein.
In A Brief History of Time, we are not only brought to learn of the advancements that Hawking has been behind, but also to learn of what a life he has led. Not only does he think clearer than most people, he also does it in a body that can barely move -- he is interviewed through a computer program he invented that gives a synthesized voice based upon the clicks he makes on a controller in his one slightly workable hand.
Hawking has Lou Gehrig's disease, a motor neuron disorder that breaks down his body while allowing his mind to enrich. Before his diagnosis while in college, he was seen as an advanced student in physics, but it was the slow deterioration of his nervous system that caused him to emphasize his studies on one section of physics, which has made him a near expert (or at least as close to an expert you can be on the vastly unknown of space and time). His mother, hesitating to title it as luck, thinks that his disease is the main reason that he has done so much with his life.
Errol Morris makes sure that we know the man who we are only able to hear through a computer. Even though we never actually hear his true voice, we are consistently reminded of the everyday person he was 35 years ago. Hawking, who was a devout dancer and member of the Oxford rowing team, now seems like a broken doll sitting in a wheelchair. Without the testimony of those that have known him all his life (including his sister Mary and mother Isobel -- though we never hear from his wife), it is hard to believe that he has ever been a normal college student. Gordon Berry remembers him partying and having a great time with Hawking in Oxford, but can only now sit impressed with the genius that he has proven to be.
A Brief History of Time is only half his story -- filling in the rest with his theories, which range from the questions of time in space to the obscurity of a black hole. Based upon his novel of the same name, we only get the easier part of his theories -- the real heart of his beliefs could be understood by only a handful of people in the same field. Quantum physics is not the main edge of what we learn, we instead get the Cliff Notes side of Hawking's cosmology.
I am not an expert in physics, but the theories that go around have always interested me. For that reason, I was by far more interested in the ideas that Hawking had to convey than his story. I'm not necessarily saying that making a movie completely devoid of his story would have been better -- some form of balance is needed.
Errol Morris is one of the finest documentaries of our time. Through this film and his prior works (including the quirky Gates of Heaven about an animal cemetery and the history changing The Thin Blue Line, which helped get parole for a Texan falsely accused of killing a police officer), Morris has become known as a master of creating a visual sense that can coincide with his subjects. This film uses many computer generated models to show what Hawking means, like when he speaks of a black hole thinning and lengthening the body of the poor astronaut mistakenly lost in one.
Hawking is one person that has a story and has beliefs that
should be shared with the world. That is one thing that Errol Morris should be remembered
for -- not only has he got a man out of jail, let us meet the inventor of execution
machines, and delved into the man that hired the famous post office shooter, he has also
brought Stephen Hawking to the fore. In my mind, Morris has done almost as much in his
lifetime for audiences as Hawking has done for science.