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Screeners '02 #4

Artisan:  Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, Roger Dodger, Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

Cowboy:  All About Lily Chou-Chou, Daughter from Danang, Devils on the Doorstep, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge.

Disney:  Lilo & Stitch, Moonlight Mile, The Rookie, Signs, Spirited Away, Treasure Planet.

DreamWorks:  Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

Film Movement:  El Bola.

Focus Features:  8 Women, Far from Heaven, The Pianist.

Fox:  Antwone Fisher, The Banger Sisters, The Good Girl, Ice Age, Minority Report, One Hour Photo, Unfaithful.

IFC:  My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Lion's Gate:  The Cat's Meow, Frailty, Max, Secretary.

MGM:  All or Nothing, Barbershop, Bowling for Columbine, Die Another Day, Evelyn, Igby Goes Down, Nicholas Nickleby, Personal Velocity, 24 Hour Party People.

Magnolia:  Interview with the Assassin.

Manhattan Pictures:  Enigma.

Newmarket:  Real Women Have Curves.

New Yorker Films:  ABC Africa, The Farewell, How I Killed My Father, Songs from the Second Floor, Yellow Asphalt.

Peninsula:  Dahmer.

Universal:  About a Boy, The Emperor's Club.

Abbas Kiarostami

Abbas Kiarostami
Seyfolah Samadian





ABC Africa


Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami isn't one of my favorites of the acclaimed directors coming out of the woodworks right now. For my money, Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the better of the Iranian New Wave, and at least his family has turned out to be more talented than the godfather who looks over them and the country's entire film industry.

This disinterest in Kiarostami came soon after seeing his beloved Palme d'Or winning film Taste of Cherry, which was well made but failed on nearly every level of potency. At the end of that film, Kiarostami seems to be asking people to rise up and speak of the profound film they were just privy to. Most people did; I didn't. Give me his more interesting Close-Up, which happened to star Makhmalbaf.

I generally come averse to films that attempt to aestheticize found footage that might work well as vérité. However, Kiarostami serves one of his bigger surprises -- by using his aesthetic pretensions and his political leanings, he turns his first documentary to get a respectable release in America into one of the more interesting works of non-fictions films this year.

Now, ABC Africa is not a great film, by any means, but it does show some newfound Kiarostami traits to the non-fan. ABC Africa shouldn't deliver anything of real note other than overburdening shots of dunes and clouds and sunsets -- though there are all of those -- but Kiarostami finds just the right chord for his filming of the problems in Uganda.

The film begins with a fax from the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development requesting his help in making a movie about AIDS and war causing 1.6 million Ugandan orphans. Soon Kiarostami, who received the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's Fellini Medal in 1997, and cameraman Seifollah Samadian leave Bahrain for Kampala. Soon they find the normal culture shock before delving deep into the social and economic problems that have made AIDS and war such a huge problem for the residents.

Kiarostami's camera, now a digital camera that he seems too giddy to play with at times, follows the people of Kampala as they go through their day-to-day lives, though many of them put on a show for the camera in front of them (Kiarostami at one point smartly shows the preparations that some go through to make their plight look especially bad to the camera crew). He watches children in the streets sing and dance along with an African song on the radio; some time later he is following the dead body of a AIDS baby as it is wrapped in paper, placed in half a cardboard box, and bicycled off to a final burial place. It's so absurd it feels like poetry.

In the film's best sequences, the filmmakers struggle with the lack of development in Uganda, especially the government-implemented blackouts every night at midnight. Not knowing about the blackouts, they are left in the dark trying to find their hotel rooms. It's astonishing to think about the iconic appearing director stuck fumbling around in the dark trying to find his way. Even though Kiarostami nearly ruins the effect at the end of this sequence (with one of his dramatic bursts of lightning), it is still an intriguing addendum to the Ugandan economy, the limitations of a small digital film crew, and the realities of some of the biggest names of modern film.

One reason that I especially liked this moment is that it seemed so distant from the rest of the film. Everything else in the film is either happy or sad, rarely in the median. The blackout stuff seems incidental and unimportant, an interesting side note to someone's travel film. What differentiates the novice travelogue filmmaker and the true auteur is that the latter knows to keep the camera running.

Mike Leigh

Timothy Spall
Lesley Manville
Ruth Sheen
Alison Garland
James Corden
Helen Coker
Sally Hawkins
Marion Bailey





All or Nothing


Everyone has already accused Mike Leigh of retreating to returning to the lower class milieu that made him famous. As one of the bigger fans of his previous films -- High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, Naked, and his masterpiece Secrets & Lies -- I can only announce my intense pleasure at seeing him return to his forte with his perfect working class schlep, Timothy Spall.

All or Nothing comes directly after Leigh surprised everyone with the acclaimed Topsy-Turvy, the film on The Mikado that somehow transcends the limits of a making-of narrative film. This isn't simply a retreat to the old days of documenting people who were not part of Margaret Thatcher's constituency, but a return to form. Though Topsy-Turvy is the better film, it is refreshing to see Leigh give new life to a genre that he has long become accustomed to.

The central location is a small South London public housing complex that's filled with the white lower class, the English equivalent to trailer trash. They spend their days in pointless jobs, contemplating their utter lack of a future. Most of the time, a downtrodden family is left to look at the future of the kids in the household, but the future generations are just as unlikely to find minor success as their parents.

Most of the place seems to revolve around Phil (Spall) and his common-law wife Penny (Manville). He is a cab driver who cannot get the initiative to leave early in the day for all the high paying fares and usually quits for the day before anyone gets out of work. That leaves Penny to make most of the family's cash, but being a checker at a local grocery store isn't quite the bread-bearing job that everyone would like. Their daughter Rachel (Garland) has even taken a job as a janitor at a retirement home to alleviate some of the pressure on Penny. The son Rory (Corden), though, can't seem to get himself off the couch long enough to visit any employment counselors.

There are other families in the complex whose lives intersect with the main family and bring a deep interest from Leigh. In fact, many of the film's earliest scenes introduce the problems of single mother Maureen (Sheen) and her daughter Donna (Coker) as if they are of as much high importance as Penny and Rory. There's also the neighbor couple Ron (Jesson) and Carol (Bailey) whose daughter Samantha (Hawkins) spends her days hitting on the guys who walk through the tenement.

One of the small problems that can be found in All or Nothing is created by the strength of these supporting players. Leigh and his actors do such masterful work in creating real people that the audience can empathize with, that the narrative shift over the main family in the film's final act comes with an unfortunate lack of new material from the neighbors. We care so much for them -- almost as much as Phil, Penny, et al. -- that their relative disappearance from the film feels unjust to both the actors and the audience.

That does not devastate the impact of All or Nothing, which leaps off the screen with such passion and fatal decency that it becomes uncompromisingly engrossing. Leigh, who often comes up with the stories for his films and then leaves the actors to improvise their heartfelt dialogue to fill this skeletal writing, again captures a stunning realism in his work that is neither melodramatic nor ridiculing.

Leigh is often compared to Ken Loach, the other deeply liberal Englishman who makes films about the British working class and the disparagement that often hinders their chance of rising above their born level. However, Loach, who always seems too preachy to me, hasn't the compassion that Leigh posses. The way that Mike Leigh captures his microcosms with an amount of gentle love rarely equated by today's social realist filmmakers, is refreshing. All or Nothing doesn't intend to change the world, but sees its place as a reminder of the people that we set aside every day. You feel an intense emotional investment with all the characters, even if you don't terribly like their actions.

While this is certainly no Secrets & Lies, a film that encapsulated every fear and desire within a family barely holding together, All or Nothing has a remarkable seriousness about the people that it revolves around and their subjugated lives that means to treat them with the respect they deserve. Their place in society may be of the smallest importance to those people sitting in Phil's cab or waiting in Penny's aisle, but their story is just as representative of the human drama as those of the patrons they work for.

Menno Meyjes

John Cusack
Noah Taylor
Leelee Sobieski
Molly Parker
Ulrich Thomsen







Anyone expecting to see the long-awaited film about Adolf Hitler that shows the human side to him while watching Menno Meyjes' Max will be greatly disappointed. Though the film does make headway in showing that there was more to the Third Reich leader than the monstrosity that perpetrated the Nazi plans, it still fails to show the true military genius that he was. He, like Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Pol Pot, is regularly portrayed for the inhuman things that he did, not the very human person he really was.

Reading Mein Kampf is not unlike reading The Autobiography of Napoleon, both of which give an idea of what two men were trying to do with the power they strove to attain. They are convinced of every word they write and their comments are nearly hypnotic. Their words brought the pangs of horrible moments in modern history (the former's much more than the latter's) and the casual reader can immediately understand how they were able to convince entire nations to follow them into war.

Before the reader mail packs with accusations of defending a leader with one of the worst crimes against humanity records (though, for my money, the worst was Joseph Stalin), I am not trying to say that what Hitler did was good, but it was built around an intelligent reworking of Social Darwinism through the fog of inexcusable racism. His ability to convince an entire country that they needed to rise from the rubble of World War I, is proof enough of the power this man possessed with his words.

None of this is present in Max, which seems more interested in portraying Hitler as that thin, gangly kid in high school who is frustrated with his inability to command his contemporaries and then has a fit when he gets the slightest inkling of power. The Hitler that Meyjes portrays is no genius, no mastermind on the cuff of madness.

Part of the allure -- and the controversy -- that has followed the film comes from people being disturbed that a film would ever show Hitler in what seems to be a positive light. Is this really as far as people can imagine Hitler? Are they more willing to believe in a slightly personable Dr. Jekyll, than in a person with any closeness to real emotions and intentions? The Hitler that Meyjes has created for his film plays with absolutely no subtext -- a mannequin of evil who is carted in whenever a documentarian needs to project evil.

Of course, who needs to have a believable Hitler when you are playing with an unbelievable story? While Adolf Hitler did have some Jewish acquaintances between the two wars and did happen to start a relationship with an art dealer and gallery owner in hopes of showing his works, barely anything that happens in Max is based on a real event. The only real moment of truthfulness in the entire film is when the people comment that the Treaty of Versailles had been signed.

John Cusack, who also produced, plays Max Rothman, the hypothetical Jewish gallery owner that befriends Hitler in the years before he tackled Mein Kampf. According to the film, Hitler (Taylor) happened upon Rothman in 1918 Berlin as he delivered bottles for one of his aristocratic society parties. Interested in the art that the man carries as well as their connection as having been soldiers in the WWI German army, Rothman decides to humor Hitler by looking at what art he has to offer.

But Rothman is at heart an avant-garde artist without any real ability to carry some of the stuff that Hitler creates. His politics are very liberal and very Jewish, and they run counter to the conservative nationalism that former army officers are feeding to the disillusioned working class soldiers, including Hitler. Their friendship seems fated to failure and when it does, it comes as no surprise the extent of Hitler's pleasure in dropping a Jew that could have helped him artistically. True art is not as important when absolute power is attainable.

While both are talented actors, neither Cusack nor Taylor ever really give insights into the characters he is portraying. Taylor essentially played young David Helfgott in Shine in the exact same sad-sacked fashion. Where one was brought to giddy insanity by a domineering father, the other is brought to frenzied insanity by a lackluster government. At the end of Max, you cannot imagine why any German would ever follow this man. The only thing achieved is that, like the real Hitler, you know you don't really care to meet him.

Patricia Cardoso

America Ferrera
Lupe Ontiveros
Ingrid Oliu
Brian Sites
Soledad St. Hilaire
Lourdes Perez
Lina Acosta





Real Women Have Curves


The affable and completely likable Real Women Have Curves comes as the anti-My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Watching these real women with their real problems makes Nia Vardelos and her shrill, idiotic, and often annoying story seem like the year's greatest misappropriation of funds. It is disturbing to think that My Big Fat Greek Wedding has passed the $100 million mark and Real Women Have Curves will be lucky to get a tenth of that.

A crowd pleaser that never panders to the audience, Real Woman Have Curves was given the Dramatic Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival -- most reports from Park City said that it was the hit of the festival, an engaging and funny portrayal of realistic people without any of the presumptions that hinder the studio films Sundance tries to work against. It's fitting that the actual Dramatic Jury Prize winner this year was Personal Velocity.

Real Women Have Curves follows the problems that stand in the way of Ana Garcia (Ferrera), the daughter of Mexican immigrants living in Los Angeles. She has been able to raise her education to gain admittance into Beverly Hills High School and one of her teachers thinks that she has a good chance of making it into Columbia University.

The big problem is that Ana's family doesn't want her to attempt such lofty goals. It's not that her father Raul (Cervera, Jr.) and sister Estela (Oliu) don't want Ana to succeed in life, but they see her rite of passage as having a stop in Estela's dingy little seamstress shop. Her mother Carmen (Ontiveros), meanwhile, doesn't even like the idea of Ana heading out to college -- partly out of Empty Nest Syndrome and partly out of a want for her daughter to know the life she's lived. With Estela and Carmen both working in the clothing shop, it is only expected that Ana do so as well.

As if she has no choice in her own life, Ana takes the job of ironing in the sweatshop and discretely sets her Columbia application in the hands of her teacher. She's not simply afraid to get out of her mother's grasp, but more likely wants to prove to herself that she can do it.

The conditions in the shop are horrible, with the bigwigs over at Bloomingdale's holding their payments for as long as possible (the fact that the shop spends on $18 on $600 dresses makes one wonder how Bloomingdale's can allow such a deal to fall through the cracks). In a scene that is meant to bring liberation to all the women in the shop, Ana leads them in removing their top layers of clothing to survive in the heat of the shop. Comparing their love handles, cellulite, and stretch marks, these women attempt to prove that they are much more tangible human beings than the shallow sticks that will wear these dresses. The complexity of each woman (except for the protesting Carmen), is clear by the bare body they show.

Where a film like Shallow Hal attempts to show the beauty inside, Real Women Have Curves attempts to show that full figured women also have a beauty outside. While this is not going to be easily sold to the waifs of Hollywood (a studio version of the film would be more ethnic than physical and probably star Jennifer Lopez), it is an intimately drawn film that regards such self-questioning issues as body weight and the acceptance of family.

At the heart of the film are two great performances. America Ferrera has a fierceness that cannot be overlooked. She is pouty but likable -- her ability to stand proudly in the middle of her cohorts and proclaim her independence of society's vision makes for a great introduction to film. However, she is often overshadowed by the always terrific Lupe Ontiveros, a woman who has spent the last few years proving that she could very well be the best Latino actor ever. She is intense, bringing a furor to a woman who's more scared than malicious. You feel for her Carmen even if you completely disagree with her.

The émigré film genre becomes slightly repetitious in their attempts to show the abilities of second generation Americans to rise into native society. Much of this film, for example, parallels scenes found in John Stockwell's Crazy/Beautiful where the Latino ingénue was actor Jay Hernandez. It is testament to Real Women Have Curves' achievement that, by the end, it almost feels like Ana's story is new.

Roy Andersson

Lars Nordh
Stefan Larsson
Torbjörn Fahlström
Sten Andersson
Peter Roth
Hasse Söderholm
Helene Mathiasson
Bengt C.W. Carlsson
Sture Olsson
Rolando Núñez





Songs from the Second Floor


Songs from the Second Floor is a masterpiece four years in the making. It's director, Roy Andersson, much like Terrence Malick, quit making feature films decades ago. And, much like Malick's The Thin Red Line, the wait was well worth it.

The film is an odd creation to consider -- a varied kaleidoscope of end of the world paradigms that somehow come together to form a subtly terrifying indictment to everything we hold true. It is a movie that will haunt me for the rest of my days; it's imagery like that one of the horror masters but without the smallest ounce of blood (one hilarious magician scene excluded).

Most of the film follows Kalle (Nordh) a Swede who has become disillusioned with the life Fate has dealt him. He searches for an answer through community and religion with no luck. Meanwhile, he torches his furniture shop, fights with the insurance company over what they owe him, and angrily visits his catatonic poet son in the a mental institution. It sufficiently looks like the world is coming to an end for this genial man.

There are many more characters in the film, each of whom fill their scenes and then often disappear for the rest of the duration. Andersson gently pokes his head into their lives -- which, of course, star them -- and then reverts back to the world of Kalle.

This could disturb most viewers, who'll find these tangential episodes as diversions that bolster the film's length but achieve nothing. What they do not notice is the fact that the film is establishing the mood and style of this filmmaker. He is a Monty Python troupe member with all the irony but none of the antics. There are moments that are true Terry Gilliam, especially a moment when an all-white board of directors sit chastising one director for losing an economic strategy while others look into what seems to be a crystal ball. The scene is finally broken into hysterics when one person notices a building moving outside, a touch straight from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (which, if not already taken, could have been a title for this film).

The oddities are numerous: Lasse (Andersson) won't let go of the feet of his employer after being fired from his job of 30 years; Tomas (Roth), Kalle's youngest son, has a homeless man yell at the window of his ex-girlfriend while she is in a coital embrace; a famed Swedish general (Sönderholm) is visited by old friends for his 100th birthday while he sits in a baby bed; a foreign envoy (Núñez) is stabbed on the city street because he has trouble with the language; and Pelle (Fahlström), the man who fired Lasse, has trouble getting to his flight because his suitcase, like those of everyone around him, is stacked 10 feet high.

The most impressive of these vignettes comes in the form of a child's sacrifice by people who are evidently trying to save society. Her name is Anna (Mathiasson), introduced as she falls to her death on rocks. We are then privy to the examination of her attributes by the coalition of dapper men and women -- her questioning seems like they are deciding whether she should be allowed into their posh private school. When they begin asking her about the many books that he's read, you begin to wonder if she has yet had a chance to read the Collected Works of Shirley Jackson.

Andersson's way of dealing with all these stories is reminiscent of names like Béla Tarr and Jim Jarmusch. In fact, Andersson's decision to film every scene with a static camera devoid of cuts, as well as the theme of the entire film, brings to mind Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise where the director shows that there is no paradise anywhere in The Land of Promise. For Andersson, he's showing that there's no sanctity in modern civilization -- a bit further reaching and much more distressing.

All of this takes place while people comment on the massive standstill that's holding up the interstate movement of the city. Everyone is leaving the place in one direction. What do they know that the rest of the city doesn't? Why haven't they told them? When one character enters a café and asks in vain "Does anyone know how to get out of here?" She seems to be speaking for the collective society, though her reasons for asking are certainly different from Kalle's.

The end of the film is one of recollection and understanding, but not in the sense that is common to mainstream cinema. These are characters that have become so distraught over everything -- their community, their religion, their family, their lives -- that the surrender to the past that closes the film feels like a matter of cathartic renunciation of all that is bad in the world. The scary thing is that they have little left afterwards.

Shohei Imamura

Koji Yakusho
Misa Shimizu
Mitsuko Baisho
Mansaku Fuwa





Warm Water Under a Red Bridge


If the idea of seeing a Japanese romantic comedy from a septuagenarian filmmaker filled with metaphors sounds like a tedious event for most Americans, then Warm Water Under a Red Bridge comes as the chance to show that such a dismissive description is not enough to really understand what Shohei Imamura has done with his film. Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is most certainly nothing like the boring, slow little film that comes to mind. Instead, it comes with a touch that would make the Farrelly brothers smile: it is a movie that rejoices bodily fluids unlike any other.

The central character in the film is Saeko Aizawa (Shimizu), a woman who lives in a small Japan town in an old candy factory beside a river. She suffers from an unusual ailment in which her body fills with water and must be released through some sexual excitement. The first time the film's protagonist, down on his luck Tokyo businessman Yosuke Sasano (Yakusho), sees her, she is getting the rush from stealing cheese at a grocery store. As she walks away from the cheese aisle, a small puddle remains where she once stood.

It's tough to really get into a movie like this without finding its absurdities pleasantly humorous. While the film is barely watchable at times, it does have a certain self-effacing pleasure in itself that cannot be compromised. In many ways, it reminded me of the Happatai music video that made the rounds a couple years ago where a group of Japanese singers wore fig leaves over their privates and sang about the world being okay. It's so bad, so stupid, that it is impossible to not be slightly entertained by it. With every shout of "Yatta!" ("It's All Right!"), their pride in the idiocy of their act because instantly hilarious.

The main difference that marks Happatai from Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is that the former lasts barely five minutes and the latter nearly two hours. Once the main joke has been used by Imamura, its value has dissipated. While he keeps the film briskly going through the characters that populate the town and their relationship to the main characters (most notably, there's Saeko's psychic and lovelorn grandmother Mitsu [Baisho], an African Olympic runner constantly practicing, and three fishermen who have found that fish overpopulate the river when Saeko's vaginal fluids flow into it), none of this really takes shape once the film hits its second act. Like the fate of Yosuke's penis after trying to meet Saeko's insatiable sexual appetite, the film starts off strong but sooner or later must become flaccid.

The film works best when trying to tackle the gender roles in sex that dominate Eastern culture compared to Western culture. The way Saeko literally dominates the sexuality of this relationship gives an fascinating view of the way that women are seen as the natural creator of life and, therefore, call the shots. If Warm Water Under a Red Bridge makes lightly humorous connections with its title, the reason is that our prurient society has made any sexual connotation like that seem like the highest echelon of wit. In the East, where sex and sexuality are not the same and public showings of a person's self, even if it is their sexual self, do not terrify the "sanctity" of society, a film like this seems like a quaint little comedy. It's their American Pie; it's our Emmanuelle in Japan.

While all of this is interesting to contemplate after watching Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, it seems to be forced sociological intellectualizing off of a film that probably doesn't aim for such. I regard the film as an intriguing example of the differences between two cultures, but cannot acclaim the film for its shoddy way of highlighting it. However, it does makes me wonder if there was some great debate among Japanese scholars in understanding the differences between their social mores and American Jim trying to simulate oral sex with a warm pie.

Reviews by:
David Perry