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Cinema-Scene.com
Volume 5, Number 26

This Week's Reviews:  Together, Whale Rider, Friday Night, Winged Migration, Capturing the Friedmans.

This Week's Omissions:  Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, 28 Days Later...


Director:
Chen Kaige

Starring:
Tang Yun
Liu Peiqi
Chen Hong
Wang Zhiwen
Chen Kaige
Zhang Qing

Release: 30 May 03
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Together

BY: DAVID PERRY

Cheng Liu (Peiqi) brings his 13-year-old son Xiaochun (Yun) to Beijing from their small Mainland China village with the promise of making his son a violin impresario under the teachings of one of the cityís many internationally recognized classical music masters. With all the money they have tucked away into his ragged hat (it wonít take long to guess what will happen to it), Cheng pesters the reclusive Prof. Jiang (Zhiwen) into mentoring Xiaochun. Of course, when the teacher is as off-base as Jiang, the lesson plan might just turn out to be violin practice mixed with doing the chores of the dirty home.

Enter Lili (Hong), an enigmatic woman moving about the story without any real established purpose. The film is evidently crafted as a family film, which may explain why Liliís occupation is never fully developed: all the hints seem to say that she is a high-priced call girl, in the least a gold-digger. Despite the filmís occasional waltzes with romance, her place in the story is strong, remaining something of a conscience for both Cheng and Xiaochun. Although she never fully hits her developmental potential, she is integral and Hong is adept at making this coyness come alive without allowing the writingís shortcomings to leave her too distant.

But there is almost always something amiss in Together, which seems to have the best intentions but the worst follow through. Although itís not a bad film by any measurement, it is rather mediocre for the normal output of Chen Kaige, a filmmaker whose terse little historical dramas have long been some of the better films exported from China. Although none of his works have yet been at the same level of artistry as Farewell, My Concubine, some of his subsequent releases (The Emperor and the Assassin, Temptress Moon) have been at least worthy of his attention.

However, considering that my knowledge of his films is limited to those receiving an American release, something seemed wrong with his 2001 feature, The Road Home, a family drama starring Zhang Ziyi directly after her appearance in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That film was hampered by an unending barrage of melodramatic sniveling and an apparent interest for Kaige to speak to the American art house audience to buy into the pretty images and the soapy dramatics.

Together shares this with The Road Home, which finally collapses under the pressure of it all by the end. Things are worsened here, though, with a score that is meant to be complimented by the violin music but only borders on sloppily over-dramatizing it at key moments of immense emotional impact. Itís all so pushy and labored that one cannot help but feel tired just watching people hug in this film.

Worse yet, the film seems unwilling to even credit any historical Chinese music, choosing instead to turn to Western standards. Tchaikovsky peeps his head up occasionally, which is nice to hear, but feels alien in a film about the Chinese music world. The Turandot Project, a documentary on the Chinese production of the Italian opera, featured more pan-Asian culture. If those weepy art house denizens, clad with tissues in hand, are willing to accept that China is the land of two-hankie familial escapades, kookie teachers, chaste prostitutes, and the performances of Itzhak Perlman, then more power to them. Iíll just be elsewhere, waiting for Ang Lee to come back to his senses and collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma again.

©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 27 June 2003



Director:
Niki Caro

Starring:
Keisha Castle-Hughes
Rawiri Paratene
Vicky Haughton
Cliff Curtis
Grant Roa
Mana Taumaunu
Rachel House
Taungaroa Emile

Release: 6 Jun. 03
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Whale Rider

BY: DAVID PERRY

It has become uncommon to see teenage girls playing real teenage girls these days. Hollywood has latched onto the idea of the consumer teenager and, as we all do in those years, the girls have bought into this version of themselves, turning to the abercrombie stores for thongs and Sprint for brain cancer. Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen are practically commodities ready for public trading in the stock exchange, and the breadth of their appeal is disarming in the way it turns many of todayís children into well-coiffed versions of their favorite twin.

Now, Iím not Mr. Socialism or anything -- in fact, Iíll be the first one to herald the Olsens for tapping into something this lucrative -- but I do worry about what it means to be a girl in todayís America. Thereís something missing, and that loss is no better visible in Niki Caroís Whale Rider. The setting is New Zealand, and the consensus of the filmís most powerful characters is one of patriarchal dominance, and yet even still, its recognition of girls as living, breathing, thinking persons is far more reputable than looking at them as a profitable market. The great shame is that, most likely, Whale Rider will fail to get much attention across the malls and the home entertainment systems of the modern atomic family. The story of Pai (Castle-Hughes) will probably never touch the kids it would be best suited for in its American release. Especially considering that it has the counter-programming of The Lizzie Maguire Movie.

Pai is the granddaughter of the Maori chieftain Koro (Paratene), a man so determined to keep the male bloodline going within his family that he sees his only grandchildís gender as a curse. The way he treats her within the walls of their family seems caring and nurturing, the type of love that is often present between a grandfather and his granddaughter, but outside the abode and whenever Pai attempts to reserve some respect for herself, he becomes cold, amazingly evil. This is not necessarily a familial monster story along the lines of Mommie Dearest, but it captures a realistic feeling of regret that one man cannot keep secret from the child who bore this regret. To make matters worse, her birth came in conjunction with the death of her twin brother and mother (although Koro couldnít care less) as well as the exodus of her father Porourangi (Curtis).

The chieftain position is considered important to these people, but there is a progressive strain within Porourangi which remains the sticking point between Koro and the realization of his dreams at least in the short term. Paiís ascension to the position would likely come well after his death, but without Porourangi there to take his place, he must turn to other, men-only choices to ensure that Pai never gets such a position via the bloodline.

The acting is amazing in the film, which has such richness in characterization writing that their job might seem easy had they not overachieved. This is especially true for Castle-Knight, who gives such an unaffected performance, often unseen in most child actors, that one cannot feel that they were looking at the next great actress if not for the fact that her career will likely be limited to New Zealander productions (it is unfortunate that her breakthrough comes after Peter Jacksonís casting of fellow countrymen for The Lord of the Rings films).

What Caro best creates with Whale Rider isnít as much the gender issues as it is the relative ignorance much of America, myself included, towards New Zealand. As any great film movement involves, there must be the introductory vision of the contemporary delights and the historical pretexts of a national society before a strong national cinema can arise. I feel like we are on the cusp of such an occurrence in New Zealand with the rising production rates there and the occasional imports (Once Were Warriors, Heavenly Creatures). And, amidst all this, Whale Rider comes for New Zealand where Walkabout introduced us to the now recognizable film movement, filmmakers, and society of Australia.

©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 27 June 2003



Director:
Claire Denis

Starring:
Valťrie Lemercier
Vincent Lindon
HťlŤne FilliŤres

Release: 20 Jun. 03
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Friday Night

BY: DAVID PERRY

Iím beginning to wonder if there is some erudite art filmgoer curse on me, because my disdain for the works of Claire Denis, one of the most prolific and best regarded French filmmakers today, continues on what is certainly one of her continued acclaimed works, Friday Night. I swear itís not the contrarian within me or that Iím aching to find some example that Iím not as pretentious as my reputation, but I really cannot stand most of the films she delivers, which are generally the favorite films of some of my closest colleagues. For every top 10 list with Beau Travail was another oblivious nod by myself, unable to comprehend what within that film merited the devotion many have for it, or for that matter any of her films.

Friday Night, which recreates much of David Leanís masterpiece Brief Encounter, falls short of stopping my series of humdrum reactions even if I regard it as her best work. What is ultimately on screen, though, is the Denis adoration for the mood of a scene above its composition, often in unbalanced helpings. Not for a moment does the film have the appeal that it seems to strive for: one with harbingers of regret, loss, and momentary happiness. Instead, itís more like the continued banging of a filmmaker yelling ďAmbiance, get it?Ē for ten minutes. It works at first, but after much of the duration, as the feel of the scene becomes both deafening and tedious, itís unlikely that the actual affect of the scene has been lost on anyone unwilling to buy into the art pretensions of a director more sure of her greatness than able to tell a story.

I have great problems with the way Denis believes she can spray au de toilette for long stretches without recognizing that there can be sensory overload, but the smell is damn nice in those small doses. Cinematographer Agnťs Godard, who works on all of Denisí films, deserves credit for capturing the imagery with the deep flare of a veteran but her willingness to oblige Denisí counterproductive posturing is disappointing.

When it does get to the story, which centers on a man and a woman as they have a single night together while Paris is in standstill during a public transportation strike as the woman prepares to move in with her boyfriend, Friday Night can be relatively riveting, and the two actors come near making the long aesthetics seem worthwhile. It isnít that the center of the film isnít meaningful, just that the film is so unfocused in dealing with it.

My semi-annual negative review of a Claire Denis film -- although this one is actually mixed -- usually brings the most e-mail of protestation. I was accused of being homophobic for disliking Beau Travail, of being squeamish for panning Trouble Every Day, and I fully expect to get something about being unromantic for finding mediocrity in Friday Night. I can see it now: ďHave you ever stared at the person you loved for hours, wondering how you were lucky enough to have this moment, enjoying it for however long it can last? If not, you are not the right person for Friday Night. If so, youíve missed the point of the film, losing sight of the textural and subtextural wonders it contains.Ē

And, although I recognize this as a valid statement on the film, I cannot help but find it all so cumbersome in this tale of the worldís most romantic city. I once fell in love in Paris, cherishing those languid moments we had together. I didnít get that same feeling watching Friday Night. It wasnít like the moments we shared, but more like those times as I sat in the room waiting for her to get ready. The tedium of lifeís facile obligations is never the type of feeling I want when I go to the movies.

©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 27 June 2003



Director:
Jacques Perrin

Starring:
Jacques Perrin

Release: 18 Apr. 03
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Winged Migration

BY: DAVID PERRY

The advertisements for Winged Migration causes me to feel like a broken record when writing on this film, but it really is one of the most exhilarating cinematic experiences of the year. The grand tradition of nature documentaries have been augmented and bettered by Jacques Perrin and his amazing cinematographic devices. If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seriously thinks that Bowling for Columbine, with its unquestionably amateur approach to documentary filmmaking, is the Best Documetary Feature of the year, then I think that weíre still short on fixing all the reforms meant for that category -- though  thereís no real way to counteract the silly voting of some ignorant Academy members.

Using a crew of 450 (including 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers), Winged Migration takes a closer look at the migratory acts of various bird species than anything yet shown on The Discovery Channel. While the case can be made that this is just a TDC documentary with better production values, the images Perrin captures have a natural feeling for the big screen. The birds soaring above us, docile and majestic, always have a larger-than-life feel (note that a deityís view of humans in cinematography terms is ďbirdís eye viewĒ) and this cannot be fully shown on a smaller television screen. If Winged Migration were ever played in an IMAX theatre, it would probably be the greatest, most representative work to show the abilities of IMAX to revolutionize conventional widescreen exhibition.

Using gliders and helicopters with telephoto lens cameras, the film gets the audience so close to the birds that their feathers become disarmingly visible, the rainwater gliding off their backs breathtaking. Considering the noise involved with the mechanics of most of these devices, it is amazing that Perrin and his production team were able to get so close to the birds.

Spread over a yearís worth of migrations (the production actually covered 3 years of filming), Perrin looks at the southward migration of the Northern Hemisphere birds and the reciprocal movement of their Southern counterparts. This allows for a great amount of personal reaction throughout the film. For the first part, the birds are recognizable parts of most of our daily lives; for the second part, the birds are passing many of the landmarks we know as they make their movement north (the distance with which we see them means that their markings are fairly unrecognizable).

Like the filmís cable counterparts, there is an even-handedness to the film, which attempts to look at nature as both beautiful and horrible. The film is rated G and is acceptable for almost any ages. However, it should be noted that children taken to the film should be prepared for the violence that can be found in nature and in the coexistence of man with its animal cohabiters. At the filmís most jarring moment, the cameraman sits and watches as a crippled bird is slowly attacked by a cadre of crabs, all approaching their prey as if they are making the most of their dramatic time for assault.

At another point, the film underlines just how fruitless this migration is for some of the birds. As a flock of birds make it through much of their return, they stop for a moment of rest in a pond, playing with a new friend they find. Noticing that this stranger is carved of wood, they make flight, but not soon enough to get out of the crosshairs of a group of hunters. It isnít treated as an atrocity what these hunters do (after all, bird hunting is as important to rustic French culture as it is to American culture), but as part of the natural continuation of this weird existence we have. That is the overall feeling of Winged Migration -- however excessive all this flying may seem, however vain our little landmarks may appear, however implausible the act of self-propelled flight may be, it all seems reasonably understandable when considering that it is how life has been for centuries between the birds and us. Winged Migration wonít change a thing, just make us more aware of the process we inadvertently follow.

©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 27 June 2003



Director:
Andrew Jarecki

Starring:
Arnold Friedman
Elaine Friedman
David Friedman
Seth Friedman
Jesse Friedman
Howard Friedman
John McDermott
Frances Galasso
Joseph Onorato

Release: 30 May 03
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Capturing the Friedmans

BY: DAVID PERRY

Andrew Jarecki, a self-made millionaire as the co-founder of MovieFone, had an interest in making a feature of his own, one about the entertainers who often come into the middle class comforts of our homes to bring joy to our children. Are they themselves happy? Do they even like children? What happens to make a person want an occupation like this?

He doesnít answer any of these questions with his end product, Capturing the Friedmans, because his interests centralized on a single New York clown, Silly Billy. It seems that this man, who is reportedly the most popular rent-a-clown in Manhattan, is David Friedman, the eldest child of Arnold Friedman whose 1987 arrest for child molestation started a national outrage and, as the film hints at, a witch hunt.

Arnold and his youngest son, Jesse, were both convicted on the merits of testimonies from children claiming to have been molested through sexual games and backroom liaisons during computer lessons in the Friedmanís rec room. Arnold, an honored Long Island science teacher, was discovered with a cache of child pornography hidden behind the family piano during a police raid the day before Thanksgiving. By sundown, the reporters were all over their Great Neck home, and the national news wasnít far behind.

One cannot discredit all the accusations on Arnold, who did have the porn (the police were tipped off to him when the infiltrated a some Scandinavian child porn en route to the Friedman home) and would later confess to molesting two children at a family retreat and his younger brother when Arnold was 13, but the case can be made that police stacked as much against the Friedmans without any real physical evidence. There are students who are interviewed for the film -- a couple saying nothing happened, one saying he was molested -- but no one fully recognizes why the nothing was ever apparent to the parents picking up their kids from what prosecutors considered a hotbed of sexual and physical assault with orgiastic scope. In many cases, the children asked to be reenrolled the next year.

Even though Jarecki tries to be completely objective, never fully making the case either way, the majority of the evidence he has to use makes it seem clear that the case was more out of prosecutorial zeal than actual actions. The preponderance of evidence, at least from what we can see, is that there was nothing torrid happening in those computer sessions, but that this was a case of guilt borne by a national gaze. Jesse, who probably had no history with these children, later acknowledges that his own plea was built on the fact that he had no chance of a fair trial in Long Island. The unfortunate truth is that he had little chance of getting a fair trial anywhere in the United States.

The primary documentation Jarecki uses is not limited, though, to the reports but also involves the home movies the Friedmans often captured. David, it seems, was an ardent documenter of all the familyís gatherings, including those that dealt with indictments and plea bargains. As the interviews with David shows a massive heap of hatred towards his mother for pressing her family to plea, the actual 8mm and video documents show that this was part of a complete familial breakdown: Elaine Friedman had simply had enough, was ready to have some finale to the drama that had ripped her from her husband, a man she later recognizes as having been unable to fulfill her own sexual needs. Jareckiís neutrality pays off here because, if the film had been merely a he-said-she-said between mother and son, Elaine would have probably been painted the antagonist. With Davidís own recordings against her side, it becomes clear that she was the only person not leading into reactionary judgments and willing to state that there might be something wrong with a supposedly perfect suburban home where the husband hides child porn in the living room.

Considering that the Friedmansí drama is still remembered because of the national purview that convicted them, Capturing the Friedmans might have been little more than the occasional bit of remembered drama mixed with heretofore unheard voices (Howard, Arnoldís brother, offers the greatest perspective/climax to everything that happens). It is the family drama found in the 8mm and video that turns this into a vital documentary, relating something otherwise impossible to get a complete feel for in simple interviews and fictionalized recreations. Even if it only helps realize the answers for one particular subject, all this helps to answer those clown questions Jarecki raised, and opened more questions -- about the legal system, about family values, about paternal sins, about maternal considerations, about memories, about national crazes -- than could ever be answered.

©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 27 June 2003



Reviews by:
David Perry
©2003, Cinema-Scene.com

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