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Volume 5, Number 33

This Week's Reviews:  Raising Victor Vargas, Buffalo Soldiers, Dirty Pretty Things, American Splendor, Swimming Pool.

This Week's Omissions:  Fraddy vs. Jason, Grind, Northfork, Open Range, Owning Mahowny, Uptown Girls.


Director:
Peter Sollett

Starring:
Victor Rasuk
Judy Marte
Melonie Diaz
Altagracia Guzman
Silvestre Rasuk
Krystal Rodriguez
Kevin Rivera

Release: 28 Mar. 03
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Raising Victor Vargas

BY: DAVID PERRY

Raising Victor Vargas begins leaning towards the Larry Clark niche, watching a New York teenager posture before a girl sprawled out in a bed. He is Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk), a Lower East Side Latino hoping to prove to himself that he is a sexual being, a player. He licks his lips as if this is the absolute of sensuality, smacking insincere kisses as if no one can turn them down. Not that this particular girl would do so: Fat Donna lives up to her name and has a reputation for being easy.

But Raising Victor Vargas breaks away from this depraved setting, turning to a comedic, less degenerate tone as Victor is caught and ridiculed before he can do the deed. Now, with his reputation on the line, he must go all-out, get the love of Juicy Judy (Marte), the girl everyone wants but no one can get. And so he moves the posturing to the swimming pool Judy and her best friend Melonie (Diaz) frequent.

His family life isnít much better. His grandmother (Guzman) has become increasingly angry with the way puberty has invaded her home, locking up telephones and forbidding visitors. Victor is the brunt of all her anger, blamed for the fact that his sister Vicki (Rodriguez) is nearing her first relationship (it is technically his fault since he introduced her to Judyís brother in return for an introduction to Judy) and that his younger brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) has found masturbation.

Victor is torn between his family, including a grandmother who took him to social services in hopes of returning him like an unwanted present, and Judy who turns out to be the exact person he needs. The key is compromise, that the household is large enough, loving enough to include Judy and all the baggage she might bring to the clan. Itís not going to be easy, but itíll be worth it.

The film is charming, never ponderous, and always easygoing. What is so likable about Raising Victor Vargas is that it never devolves into the type of Larry Clark film its cinematography, setting, and characters seem incidentally so close to. Director Peter Sollett chooses to carefully present these characters as living, breathing teenagers, not political statements, sociological experiments, or commercial ventures. These are not the pretty faces who often come into Hollywood film, they are the kids I see when I walk around Lower Manhattan, the people whose lives would make great movies even if they donít overcome adversity and find histrionic drama for Denzel Washington to pick it up for an unknown pretty face to play.

And this gives the film a great sense of realism that is content with life instead of critical. The ultimate statement of Raising Victor Vargas is the importance of family, but it tells it with such a simple, flexible style that never does the film become preachy. A mere 88 minutes in length, the movie feels shorter and leaves the audience wanting more. Like the best realist cinema, it brings to life convincing characters whose little dramas are interesting enough to merit added attention. It is always rare for me to ask that a film be longer, but I canít help but get that impression of Raising Victor Vargas. Better yet, taking a cue from the soulless Hollywood films Vargas is competing against, thereís evidently an audience for sequels.

©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 15 August 2003



Director:
Gregor Jordan

Starring:
Joaquin Phoenix
Ed Harris
Scott Glenn
Anna Paquin
Elizabeth McGovern
Michael Pena
Leon Robinson
Gabriel Mann
Dean Stockwell

Release: 25 Jul. 03
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Buffalo Soldiers

BY: DAVID PERRY

Taking from David Russellís far superior Three Kings, Australian filmmaker Gregor Jordan attempts to find humor in the American military ranks through a cynical purview built on anti-Americanism and Socialist intrigue. The film was shelved by Miramax in 2001 when it became clear that the filmís messages would be hard sell at a time when an Afghani war was ending and GWII was beginning.

But time still isnít on Jordanís side, with small groundswells of anger created by the films poster (portraying a dollar signed American flag) and tag line (ďSteal all that you can stealĒ). Although I find all these rather innocuous, they augment what is an untraditionally cynical, off-putting film.

Set in West Germany directly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Buffalo Soldiers looks at soldiers stationed there to keep the peace. This has long been a place of relative ease -- things might be tough in East Berlin but little uprising is going on in the American Zone. The area is in such little need of American military occupation that the soldiers must waste their time appeasing their superiors with poorly put together drills as they mass produce, sell, and use drugs.

The ringleader of this is Ray Elwood (Phoenix), a smalltime criminal who, like most of the American military according to the film, joined the army as a way to get out of prison time. By trading three months of incarceration for three years of active duty, Elwood has become the perfection of capitalism, turning this camp into a haven for his drug sales. There seems to be little moral guilt for him because the bottom line is so compelling.

His main superior, Colonel Berman (Harris), is too interested in getting a promotion to notice that any of this, as well as the arms thievery/marketing, and Elwood's adulterous trysts with his wife (McGovern). With this, a military wiz, Sergeant Robert Lee (Glenn), has been sent to the place to clean up its act. It doesnít take to long for him to notice that the main entrepreneur of all this disarray is Elwood.

And thus a war between them begins, moving from daughter dating to violent carjackings. Meanwhile, Elwood gets a large quantity of methamphetamines for cooking, a task that he must plan despite the peering eye of Lee.

Whatever Buffalo Soldiers is -- and Iím still not sure exactly what it was going for -- itís certainly not good. Willing to paint everything black and white with antiheroes that aspire for Catch-22 or MASH, it turns out to be merely superficial creations of uninspiring farce. Try as most of the actors might -- especially Phoenix, Glenn, and Paquin as Leeís daughter -- thereís nothing to do with characters so thinly written. Only Ed Harris, giving a performance that brings real feelings to a barely there character, rises above the screenplayís limitations.

I donít dislike Buffalo Soldiers because of its anti-American leanings, but I dislike it because it shows its colors so dreadfully. The main color scheme may be fatigue brown and Americana blue, but in the world of Buffalo Soldiers all hues take a putrid shade.

©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 15 August 2003



Director:
Stephen Frears

Starring:
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Audrey Tautou
Sergi Lůpez
Sophie Okonedo
Benedict Wong
Zlatko Buric

Release: 18 Jul. 03
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Dirty Pretty Things

BY: DAVID PERRY

Steven Knight made his money as a creator of the original British Who Wantís Be a Millionaire, finding entertainment in the way people will strive -- even through random, unimportant fact memorization -- to get their greatest wish. In an increasingly capitalist country like England (or any of the countries that have their own variations on the series, including Italy, France, and the United States), that wish is money, in great sums. A £1 million (or, with this economy, Ä1 million), however unlikely this aspiration may be, is something that can change a personís life.

Knight evidently isnít blind to the wishes of those outside the capitalistic U.K. His screenplay for Dirty Pretty Things moves away from the capitalists to the ťmigrť peons who are brought to these nations with promises of freedom, comfort, and happiness. He removes the veneer of lofty aims to show that there isnít an opening for them to gain from the systemís output, but instead to toil as the creator of the yield for everyone else. Itís like Whoís Want to Be a Hopeful Laborer?

The characters that populate the film are almost entirely of this immigrant class, coming into the London streets only when their industry is needed -- the underworld of cabbies, prostitutes, maids, and orderlies. The main subject is Okwe (Ejiofor; in one of the yearís best performances), a Nigerian immigrant, who spends his days driving a cab and nights working as a porter for a classy hotel. For a couple hours, soon after the cleaning crew comes in, Okwe can head over to a the apartment of a Turkish maid, Senay (Tautou), or the break room of a Chinese morgue orderly, Guo Yi (Wong), for a couple hours of sleep.

Dirty Pretty Things unravels like the best of mysteries, hinting at the facts it knows before unveiling them without the slightest amount of unneeded suspense. Of course, that is the way life is for most of these people -- they are so pained through days of work, usually illegally (Senayís refugee visa doesnít allow her to work, meaning that her deportation would be immediate should the state learn of her job), that the little surprises in life, the things that shock the middleclass, seem tame.

Director Stephen Frears, one of the best filmmakers in England and the least likely director to become pigeonholed into a genre (his last films were High Fidelity and Hi-Low Country), touches on the socialistic meanings of these stories without becoming preachy, a great achievement when one considers how this same script might have been reworked for an unabashedly political filmmaker like Ken Loach. Although his indictment of capitalist practices -- which reach into the trade of organs for European Union identification documents -- are defined, they remain part of the drama, not the guiding force.

What is most amazing about the film is the way it creates characters and scenarios that do not feel contrived for a political gain, but merely come as continual segments of a common story found in Londonís immigrant population (or, for that matter, the immigrant population in New York or Paris). The film feels truthful, matter-of-fact in its storytelling. It is a heart-wrenching (no pun intended) tale of wish fulfillment in the face of a system that is obligated to forget those who work it. Capitalism may not be the monster that films often portray it to be, but itís impossible to not find the moral quandaries it bares, especially in reference to immigration laws. Pat Buchanan should be directed to this film immediately.

©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 15 August 2003



Director:
Shari Springer Berman
Robert Pulcini

Starring:
Paul Giamatti
Harvey Pekar
Hope Davis
Joyce Brabner
Earl Billings
James Urbaniak
Judah Friedlander

Release: 15 Aug. 03
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American Splendor

BY: DAVID PERRY

Harvey Pekar stands as one of the most important figures of the underground comic book world. His stories, as dramatized in the American Splendor comic book series, were the day-to-day grumblings of an American life. The series (drawn by R. Crumb since Pekar's drawing abilities are limited to stick figures) was notable because its form of a superhero was merely able to overcome the travails of ordinary life -- often a far more tasking situation than catching criminals.

Using the motif of a comic book, directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini attempt to recreate the world of Harvey Pekar for the film American Splendor. Integrating newly made documentary footage with the real Pekar and archive footage of his life, the film makes a case for Pekarís odd existence, a world that seems to involve more setbacks than a normal life, but maybe that is just because heís the type of man whoíll complain about lifeís minor catastrophes on par with the worst.

Case in point, look at the way Pekar (Giamatti) reacts to the soulless career heís stuck in and the lymphoid cancer that he overcomes, neither of which are any less grumble-worthy than a long line at the grocery store or a misunderstood Halloween costume (he goes as himself). Hereís a 35-year-old man who complains like a septuagenarian. Jack Caffrey of CNN should watch out.

But the clear thing about the documentary footage added to the film is that Pekar isnít just a curmudgeon while a young, unmarried man, but also into his sixties, long married and a cancer survivor. He didnít grow into grumpiness, his age just caught up with his mindset.

The key to American Splendor is liking his shtick. With his nasally whine of a voice crackling through his throat, the minutiae he worries over, and the disheveled look he aims for, Pekar could be tiring as a character. I suppose that is the smartest thing about including the real man into the film: I cannot worry that theyíve turned him into a cartoon when the real man is acting exactly the same way.

At the same time, regardless of any cartoonishness that the film might have otherwise used, I liked Pekar. I found his abrupt honesty to be refreshing and was often heartened to hear the sincerity with which he treats everyone around him, including his wife Joyce (Davis), adopted daughter Danielle (Sweeten), and coworker Toby (Friedlander), all of whom appear in the documentary sections. Pekar, whom I had no preexisting knowledge of, is the type of comic book character I would love to read, far more interesting than the antics of Batman or the Green Lantern or Daredevil. He is real, and I appreciate his superpowers even if itís just an invincibile breaking down at the end of the day.

The film, though more unfocused (possibly intentionally), is similar to the work of Terry Zwigoff, the filmmaker behind Crumb and Ghost World. Pekar isnít too far from the world of Enid of Ghost World, although itís likely he would merit her ridicule despite their existential similarities. They especially share a dry sense of humor that cannot be underestimated. If this were a film about a man complaining for an hour and a half, it would have been unbearable, but with a man like Harvey, even compulsive nagging becomes amusing.

©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 15 August 2003



Director:
FranÁois Ozon

Starring:
Charlotte Rampling
Ludivine Sagnier
Charles Dance
Marc Fayolle
Jean-Marie Lamour

Release: 2 Jul. 03
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Swimming Pool

BY: DAVID PERRY

FranÁois Ozon is among the finest filmmakers in France right now, turning in such near masterpieces as See the Sea, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, and the perfect Under the Sand. I like him for the very reason that his films are so inaccessible, he is unconditionally French. Every nuance has a Gallic certitude in its artistic integrity that one often feels that the filmmaker is too proud of himself. But when you look at the end product, all this arrogance seem more than merited.

I wish Swimming Pool was the same. Even though it has that arrogance, that absolute French-ness, it just isnít as worthy. What it achieves in atmosphere -- and if there was an Oscar for this, believe that this would deserve a nomination -- it loses in narrative coherence. And itís not so much that the film chooses to retract at the instants it should be open, as is often a complaint about European cinema. Instead, it is open when it should be tight -- its secrets are revealed when they should always remain mysteries.

Perhaps that is the point considering that this is (a) Ozonís first English-language film, and (b) about a writer of clichťd pulp mystery novels. The novelist is British prig Sarah Morton (Rampling), a wannabe Agatha Christie (read: Ruth Rendell) who wants to write something of greater worth now that sheís made her publisher (Dance) loads of money on her latest mystery novel, Dorwell Wears a Kilt. He doesnít think she yet up to it, and, seeing it as a chance to get her out of his hair, allows her to take a sabbatical to his vacation home in ProvenÁal France.

The scheme seems to work at first, as she sets up shop around the place, finding a comfortable setup for her writing and a handsome waiter to dillydally with in her decidedly English way (the humorous way Ozon and cowriter EmmanuŤle Bernheim treat the English isnít terribly far from the American stereotype of queenís countrymen). All that changes, though, when the publisherís daughter Julie (Sagnier) arrives unannounced. Her idea of comfort is far different: late nights, swathes of men, and languid days of nude swimming.

Ozon fetishizes Sagnierís body much of the time in the same way he treated the Malik Zidiís body in Water Drops on Burning Rocks. While this might be surprising considering Ozonís homosexuality, his regard for the instincts of the female, and the way he essentially queens much of their dramatics, doesnít. For what itís worth, he seems to be finding humor in the way dapper Brit reacts to slut French in the same way Saturday Night Live was able to create a memorable skit on the idea of Bob Dole living in the Real World house.

To help create what works so well in the first two thirds of the film, Ozon uses the terrific craftsmanship of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux and composer Philippe Rombi. More than anything, though, so much of the film sets on the shoulders of its two actresses, both of whom deliver memorable performances of pan-European Sapphic desires and intolerance. Watching them together reminds me of why there was a longing to create a formal European Union as well as why such a union is nearly falling apart.

Despite all the priming of the film for perfection, Swimming Poolís climax, a razzmatazz of auteur superiority to the audience, comes dreadfully close to the complaints Truman Capote has for the mystery novel characters that visit his home in Neil Simonís Murder by Death: you introduce important characters near the end, you create twists that are completely erratic, and you withheld clues to create an unearned supremacy to the reader. Like heís saying, you had me at hello, but you lost me by the time you started rambling to a conclusion.

©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 15 August 2003



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

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