Thursday, May 25, 2006

Three Movies I Didn't Have Time To See

There are a million joys of working at the library. One of the many things I love about my work is reading review journals and selecting materials for our collections. I'm especially fond of Video Librarian, a journal that reviews all matters of new and reissued films, both feature and documentary, for all ages. In every issue I discover dozens of great films I'd love to see. With this list in hand, I then go through the library catalog and request the movies to be delivered to my home library.

This week, five DVDs arrived on the same day. I knew there was no way I could see them all before I went on vacation. So, I had to pass these by, at least for the moment...


The hand-woven designs and luxurious embroidery of two women's work become the visual basis of this masterfully observed French tale of an unlikely friendship between two women of different ages, classes and cultures. Using embroidery as a metaphor for the steady weaving together of two very dissimilar souls, Eléonore Faucher's debut film has been compared to Girl With a Pearl Earring for the beauty of its lighting and the detailed depth of its photography.

Young and pregnant, Claire decides to flee the questions of her family and friends by taking refuge as an apprentice to Madame Melikian, a strange, lonely woman who owns an embroidery business. Fearful of her advancing pregnancy, doubtful if she even wants a baby, Claire develops a fateful connection with the bereaved Madame, whose son was killed in a motorcycle accident. In the shadows of shawls and fabric hangings, an unspoken bond slowly builds between these two easily unraveled women, one that grows from diverse strands of suspicion and emotion into a common thread.

Sequins discovers a surprisingly fresh beauty in familiar tones, that of women adjusting to one another and of the doubts inherent in becoming a mother, or in suddenly losing a child. Pierre Cottereau's cinematography and Francois Guillaume's sound design enhance the film's understated mood, capturing how fabric gleams in a certain shadow or how the rhythm of needles echoes through cloth, and of how single stitches can be united with work, camaraderie and love.

I read a nice review here.


Celebrated Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, Close-Up) once again casts his masterful cinematic gaze upon the modern socio-political landscape of his homeland, this time as seen through the eyes of one woman as she drives through the streets of Tehran over a period of several days. Her journey is comprised of ten conversations with various female passengers, including her sister, a hitchhiking prostitute and a jilted bride, as well as her imperious young son. As Kiarostami's "dashboard cam" eavesdrops on these lively, heart-wrenching road trips, a complex portrait of contemporary Iran comes sharply into focus. Calling it a "work of inspired simplicity," A.O. Scott in The New York Times wrote that Kiarostami, "in addition to being perhaps the most internationally admired Iranian filmmaker of the past decade, is also among the world masters of automotive cinema...He understands the automobile as a place of reflection, observation and, above all, talk."


Lumumba: la mort du Prophete offers a unique opportunity to reconsider the life and legacy of one of the legendary figures of modern African history. Like Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba is remembered less for his lasting achievements than as an enduring symbol of the struggle for self-determination. This deeply personal reflection by acclaimed fimmaker Raoul Peck on the events of Lumumba's brief twelve month rise and fall is a moving memorial to a man described as a giant, a prophet, a devil, "a mystic of freedom," and "the Elvis Presley of African politics."

If this is a film about remembering, it is even more a film about forgetting. It is not so much a conventional biography as a study of how Lumumba's legacy has been manipulated by politicians, the media and time itself. Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck meditates on his own memories as the privileged son of an agricultural expert working for the regime which displaced Lumumba. He examines home movies, photographs, old newsreels and contemporary interviews with Belgian journalists and Lumumba's own daughter to try to piece together the tragic events and betrayals of 1960.

A film essay in the tradition of Night and Fog or The Sorrow and the Pity, Lumumba explores how any image inevitably represses the multiple stories surrounding it, how the past as preserved by the media is always in a sense the hostage of history's winners. Therefore present-day Europe figures as prominently in Lumumba as the Congo in 1960, because Europe was the unseen hand behind the camera and the events leading to Lumumba's assassination. Peck presents an unfamiliar Europe seen through the eyes of a visitor from the Third World - cold, affluent, a guilty present trying to forget its past. Yet, as this film testifies, Lumumba's prophecy will not be silenced until Africa achieves its second independence where the promises of the first can be fulfilled.

I hope to have the opportunity to see these in the near future.

What are some of the films on your list this summer?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Me and You and Everyone We Know

"Back and forth. Forever." In one of the more idiosyncratic films I've seen of late, actress/director Miranda July creates a space so real its painful. The DVD box summarizes the film as such: "Christine Jesperson (Miranda July) is a struggling artist and senior cab driver who uses her talents and imagination to draw her dreams and objects of desire nearer. One such object is Richard Swersey (John Hawkes), a newly-single father of two precocious boys who is hoping for amazing things, yet panics upon meeting the captivating Christine. But in a world where the mundane is transcendent and people seek meaningful connections despite the risk, anything magical can - and will - happen."

There are several notable scenes that convey the sheer humanity of the film with a grace unseen in many Hollywood films. For me, one of the most affecting moments occurs near the beginning of the picture when an outside character places a goldfish, in a water bag, on his roof of his car after purchasing it at the pet store. He forgets to retrieve the bag before closing his door and starting off down the highway. Christine and one of her senior passengers notice the fish, and in a moment of tenderness, offer kind blessings in what we know will be its last moments of life. Several other such moments occur interspersed throughout the film, but not with nearly as much emotional sensitivity or impact.

Perhaps the most "intriguing" scenes are those that helped the movie earn an R rating for a category I had not yet seen before: "Disturbing sexual content involving children." It sounds worse than it is. Basically, these scenes are further illustration of the film's overaching theme of the lengths that people will go to in order to be recognized by others - especially a potential love interest - in the hope of truly connecting with someone on a significant, transcendental level. The most "disturbing" factor of these scenes may simply be that our world alienates children to such an extent that they too are left searching for compassion long before they even realize what these abstract concepts mean to the greater welfare of their adult lives. Simply put, we are all lost in this great big world - we are all looking for someone who is looking for us. Sadly, children feel this loneliness too, and are uncertain how to reconcile this experience.

Roger Ebert wrote a glowing review that all but begs one not to miss this film. I agree that the child actors save the film. It's an important statement, if not universal enough for my taste.

3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Walk The Line

Johnny Cash. The man in black. The legend. I can hear a hundred songs from my rural childhood. I can hear those great last sessions with Rick Rubin - the ones that won over a whole new generation of listeners. The songs tell stories of real people and real challenges. All the while, I listened and wondered just who this man, this deep-voiced singer, was.

Walk The Line begins, much like as it ends, at Folsom Prison in 1968. Of course, Johnny broke huge in 1955 with "Folsom Prison Blues" - but at that time he had no idea of what prison life must be like. Before he takes the stage, as he takes a moment to reflect, the film hastens to call back the past and run through the upbringing of one J.R. Cash. From his humble life on the farm working (or not) in the fields alongside his older brother, hymn-reciting mother, and hardened father, Johnny grew accustomed to a life of hardship. At night, he escaped through the radio and the sounds of the Carter Family. It was here that he began to carry the torch for June Carter.

Over the course of the next two decades, Johnny married, bore two children, and set about making an honest living as a musician in Memphis, starting at Sun Studios with a his ragged band of mechanics, the Tennessee Two, and eventually moving to the touring circuit with the likes of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and company. In time he grew successful, changed to Columbia records and drew an enormous fan base, but with that success came greater challenges. Through it all, as Johnny battled addiction and depression, there was but one constant: his love and determination to marry June Carter.

This film is the story of how Cash struggled to overcome his demons and win the heart of the woman of his dreams. Joaquin Phoenix play Cash convincingly - if naive. But the real showstopper is Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon. I'll confess that I generally cannot tolerate her characters, but this film would be lost without her shining light. The cinematography is stunning. Many of the shots set up context to the lyrics Johnny wrote and made famous (those who already know the music will be rewarded by this clever device). And the music, all sung by the cast, is rightfully reverent (if still pale in comparison). By the time the film draws to a close, I'm left wanting more, wanting to experience the longest chapter in Johnny's life, his salvation and devotion to June over the course of the ensuing three decades. Highly recommended.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 08, 2006

Broken Flowers

Jim Jarmusch's latest film is the story of a man who sets out to find the son he didn't know he had and ends up getting answers to some questions he never dreamed of asking. Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is an emotionally blank middle-aged Don Juan who has never married and lives a quiet, comfortable life thanks to shrewd investments in computers (though he doesn't use one himself). After being given his walking papers by his latest girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy), Don receives an anonymous letter informing him he fathered a son 19 years ago, and that the boy wants to find his dad. Not sure what to do, Don shows the note to Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a neighbor who fancies himself an amateur detective. With Winston's help, Don narrows the list of possible mothers down to four women, and with a mixture of reluctance and resigned determination he sets out to find them. Armed with a CD of traveling music from Winston, Don pays unannounced visits to Laura (Sharon Stone), an oversexed widow with a libidinous teenage daughter (Alexis Dziena); Dora (Frances Conroy), a stuffy real estate agent; Penny (Tilda Swinton), an aging biker with no happy memories of Don; Carmen (Jessica Lange), a self-styled analyst for pets whose outward eccentricity disguises a firm inner stability; and finally the gravesite of Michelle, a woman with whom it appears Don had a serious connection.

In one of the most poignant dramatic comedies I've seen in ages, Murray and Jarmusch team up to produce a memorable portrait of searching humanity, and spontaneous determination, all framed with extreme sensitivity and unparalleled humor. Murray is outstanding: his every expression is copiously descriptive of an interior monologue that we the audience are allowed to hear through the silence. The cinematography is brilliant, vivid, gritty and realistic (as one would expect with Jarmusch), but so much more colorful than the classics we've been reviewing here. The soundtrack is great (and is also available in the library system), and lends another glowing layer of character and meaning to the proceedings. I also recommend checking out the bonus features on the DVD: one includes a reel of footage from the clapboard takes for each scene from beginning to end, edited take by take, including a few gags. It's quite possibly the most interesting look at how a film is made that I have ever seen - and it's only 8 minutes.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 01, 2006

Coffee and Cigarettes

In keeping with our smoking theme, and in light of our upcoming discussion of Mystery Train this week, last night I saw Jim Jarmusch's episode film Coffee and Cigarettes. I'm a sucker for Jarmusch's singular style, so I was forgiving when the first sketch with Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright sitting in a cafe, behaving strangely and musing to the point of idiocy about coffee and cigarettes left me kinda cold and detached. But by the time I got to the sequence with Iggy Pop and Tom Waits (two of rock's most interesting personalities), I was questioning why I should care what was going on. That's when I understood the point, I suppose. This film isn't so much about "anything" per se, as much as it's about the socio-cultural phenomena surrounding what really happens at a table at a coffee shop when we sit down (no matter who we are) and have a cup and a smoke. Of course, you and I can go to our favourite bean shop and have our series of vignettes, but I doubt that they would leave you as dissatisfied as this slight film. I mean, for all the star power and art house clout this picture throws around, I expected more.

I question what made Jarmusch feel so inclined to take the original 3 episodes of this film (shot in black and white in the mid to late 80's), and create several complementary pieces. Granted, in light of Mystery Train, we probably should see the 1989 installment, "Memphis Version," which stars an brilliantly ignorant (imagine that!) Steve Buscemi, Joie Lee, and Cinqué Lee (who star in said film), if for nothing other than the discussion of Elvis and race is more direct and pointed than the whole of Mystery Train does overtly. On the other hand, there are a few scattered moments of grace here: Cate Blanchett shows her ability to tackle a dual role with her opposite "cousin", and the sketch with Bill Murray alongside GZA and RZA (members of the Wu-Tang Clan), is rich and intelligent. Unless you're already sensitive to Jarmusch, and perhaps curious about the outstanding cast (even if they're doing little to nothing), you may want to give this one a pass.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Thank You For Smoking

Jason Reitman's directorial debut, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Christopher Buckley, is the media satire Thank You for Smoking. Starring Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, a man who has turned spinning news and information into a successful career for the tobacco lobby, the film mines the fertile land between politically-pointed entertainment and edifying-yet-smarmy documentary. Though ripe with potential, given the sucess of films as divergent as those of Michael Moore and the likes of the singularly genius The Corporation, this one failed to hold my interest despite a interesting cast and nearly-clever storyline.

There are a number of highlights however, including an honest performance by child actor Cameron Bright as Naylor's wide-eyed son. There's also a brilliant sequence where Nick is kidnapped and bound by a vigilante group who attaches hundreds of nicotine patches to his body in an attempt to draw public attention to the horrors of cigarette dependence. The rest of the film's plot-line pales in comparison. Strong performances by William H. Macy as a Senator who runs a anti-tobacco campaign (and reminds me a little too much his stellar role as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo), Robert Duvall as the king of big tobacco, and Sam Elliott as the Marlboro Man, really take this picture from monotony to genuine entertainment. But Eckhart's performance is too scattershot to be believable (I'd rather believe Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman from American Psycho in this role), and Katie Holmes is far too immature to lend creedence to her role as a smart young reporter getting the best of her elusive subject. It's a shame that such a great book couldn't get a better film.

Did I mention that Jason Reitman's father directed Ghostbusters?
I wonder if that helps.

3 out of 5 stars