Friday, July 28, 2006

Film Review #51: THE LOST CITY ******** (2006) *** Director: Andy Garcia *** Cast: Andy Garcia, Inés Sastre, Nestor Carbonell, Bill Murray *** Who can blame Andy Garcia if he got the bends? When it all finally came together, his window for location shooting of The Lost City in the Dominican Republic was just 35 days and his budget under $10 million. Garcia’s passionate elegy to mid-century Havana’s cultural, political and musical upheaval, The Lost City, was an idea he’d nursed since 1985 – the same year he says he started making his living as an actor and could afford epic movie dreams. For the last 16 years he collaborated with expatriate Cuban writer G. Cabrera Infante on the script. Also star and director, Garcia produced the film score’s nearly 40 songs and nightclub production numbers, wrote five of them and then performed some of the music on-screen. *** Despite anticipatory feature profiles of Garcia last spring, reviews of the film were luke-warm. Complaints were sundry. These ranged from the film’s perhaps self-indulgent length (143 minutes), to Garcia’s own acting, to whether Bill Murray’s tart role belonged there at all, to the film’s eye-wideningly irreverent portrait of Che Guevara. The soundtrack alone drew raves and was scheduled for CD release well before the film itself. *** Now The Lost City’s DVD release is announced for August 8th. And you know what? The Lost City has been moseying along, holding its own for all its flaws. In pretty much its last week of commercial release after a three-month run, The Lost City is on-screen in 24 cities across the US. *** It will be worth catching on DVD for reasons beyond its obvious visual loveliness and soundtrack. These would include Infante and Garcia’s gauntlet-provoking take on Che Guevara, the film’s use of women, and Garcia’s highly physical acting and directing, all of which support The Lost City as a film as much about memory as history. *** The Lost City covers the years 1958-61, during which several factions waged resistance against military dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had run Cuba since 1933 and reportedly murdered some 20,000 people. Fidel Castro’s guerillas entered Havana in January 1959 after 25 months of fighting. Andy Garcia was six years old when he and his family left for Miami in 1961, apparently getting very little out past Castro’s airport guards. The film portrays this time via the fictional Fellove family saga, which centers on three brothers and their differing paths. *** Eldest brother Fico (Garcia) presides over the nightclub La Tropico, echoing both Casablanca’s Rick and last year’s The White Countess. Oddly, memory tempts me to recall The Lost City starting with an elaborate dance number at Fico’s club (with the fastest hip shimmy this side of David Lachapelle’s dance doc Rize). Actually the film’s opening titles first overlay a Batista security officer’s abrupt execution, performed in the name of the shadowy resistance fighter “Pelligra.” This turns out to be middle brother Luis (Nestor Carbonell). Luis is later assassinated in a breath-stopping scene on a windy roof-top amid bright white sheets on a clothes-line. *** Luis is pivotal to the story’s arc and resonance, a lost brother of such haunting stature that Castro and company always fall short. Fico engages a vivid but short-lived romance with Luis’ widow Aurore (Inés Sastre), eventually leaving her for New York City at his parents’ insistence as Castro’s reforms accelerate. Aurore joins the regime. The youngest Fellove, gullible, surly Ricardo (Enrique Murciano of Without a Trace), simply rides into the hills one day, correctly trusting Fidel’s men to find him. Fico tangles with US gangster Myer Lansky (Dustin Hoffman), loses his nightclub, and enjoys an enduring friendship with an unnamed oddball writer played by Bill Murray. *** Historical events often anchor The Lost City’s abundant plot. Luis’ participation in a doomed effort to storm Batista’s palace parallels that of March 1958. Castro’s land reforms did nationalize the large plantations; here, Ricardo blithely informs his uncle of the confiscation of land that is clearly the source of the Fellove’s wealth, causing the uncle’s collapse. Fidel and a large contingent did visit the United Nations in 1960, making plausible Aurore’s midnight visit to Fico in a New York City diner. *** But The Lost City’s striking treatment of revered lefty icon Ernesto Che Guevara stands out. At least Garcia and Infante – a disillusioned former cultural attaché for Fidel – are even-handed; their Batista is a chilling sadist. We meet beautiful Che (Jsu Garcia) casually shooting wounded Batista foot soldiers where they lay in the dirt as he passes. The film presents Che’s role at La Cabana prison where he supervised executions of Batista’s police. One is a boyhood friend of Fico’s. Che lets Fico to beg for his friend’s life, then enjoys telling him the man’s already dead. *** This has been a banner year for Che’s memory, given Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, the retrospective exhibit of Che images at Manhattan’s International Center for Photography, and on-going gallery screenings of Leandro Katz’s remarkable 1997 short video about photographer Freddy Alborta, whose pictures documented Che’s body on display following his murder in Bolivia. Reconsideration of Che to this degree recalls the rocky fate of Jonathan Demme’s 2003 documentary The Agronomist, about Jean Dominique, assassinated founder of Radio Haiti. Soured on Aristide, the journalist confronts him on-camera and on-air about corruption within his party, Lavalas. This unflattering scene has gone largely unappreciated among what might have been a natural audience. *** That Garcia personifies Cuba as a woman – to be wooed, seduced, fought over, cherished, lost – makes his movie’s Che more disturbing. Che aggressively, intimately kisses Aurora at the garden party when Fico wants her to leave. And Fico, an avid photographer, is so mad to get Aurore’s close-up image on film that he follows her waist-deep into the surf at the beach – a microcosm of Garcia’s own abiding need to capture this receding era on celluloid, and of Fico’s “home movies” when he’s alone in snowy New York City. An especially magnificent sequence cross-cuts Luis’s dance-like assault on Batista’s palace – leaps up and down staircases – with Fico filming dancing women at his club. For brief flashes, Fico appears to be present at Batista’s palace, filming his brother’s head-long dash. As for Aurore, she finally prefers Che’s honorific title for her, Widow of the Revolution, to feeling decorative though prized – “useless.” (So might a country’s people.) *** Well, who can really blame her? Except for those who entertain on-stage, The Lost City’s women have little to do except cluster down the hall while their men discuss and decide. One female character at the Fellove household – perhaps a baby sister, perhaps Ricardo’s wife – never speaks at all. The most thick-headed aspects of Fidel’s regime appear in the person of a soldier (the fine actor Elizabeth Pena is an incongruous role) who tells Fico which musical instruments his club’s band may use. With revolutionary logic, she reviles the saxophone, based on what its inventors, the Belgians, did in the Congo. *** We should remember that this is a film emotionally based on memory and what a six-year-old lost. The Lost City relies heavily on the physical expression of emotion in, for many, a non-familiar culture. Greatly admired stage performers at Fico’s club include the old and the pot-bellied as well as the young and trim. The Fellove men are extravagantly affectionate with each other, hugging, cradling heads, stroking, embracing, kissing often. Ricardo shambles and lurches, mirroring the ill fit of the regime’s demands. Particularly in Fico, moments of great physical restraint and stillness offset great, fluid physicality. These extremes, derided by some as Garcia’s “wooden” acting, match other stretches of the film’s dilated perception, part of recollecting what’s lost – over-long, over-ripe, hazy scenes of Fico and Aurore strolling on a beach in fashionable hats, for example. Though not the final word on Cuba, who can blame him? ********** [1,285 words] *** This review was written for & published there 7/28/2006.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Film Review #50: THE BLOOD OF MY BROTHER *************** Although he has now made three documentary films, Brooklyn-based Andrew Berends is first and foremost a still photographer. This may account for both the major problems & the most memorable, haunting qualities in his film, The Blood of My Brother, about how one Iraqi family carries on after its eldest son is killed by a US military patrol in Baghdad. This striking 84-minute film is one of two that Berends shot during eight months in Iraq two years ago – the other, When Adnan Comes Home, follows the almost-lethal incarceration of a 16-year-old boy arrested for stealing a few yards of electrical cable. Blood of My Brother premiered at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Festival last December, made the prestige doc festival rounds in Tehran, Prague & Athens, & had its US debut at Manhattan’s Tribeca Film Festival in April. On June 30th, it opened in limited theatrical release. *** It did not do well. As a movie you see in a regular theater, The Blood of My Brother has come & gone. This is not for an atmosphere uncongenial to films about how ordinary Iraqis have fared during this increasingly unpopular war. Lincoln Center’s Human Rights Film Festival in early June particularly highlighted such films – not just Michael Winterbottom’s related Road to Guantanàmo, but the Spanish documentary Winter in Baghdad & James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments, winner of three Sundance awards. Coming up on August 4th is Laura Poitras’ anticipated My Country, My Country, whose footage & sound she shot entirely alone while following a Sunni physician during his inspections of Abu Ghraib prison, treatment of patients & run for legislative office. *** My point is that Blood of My Brother has been born into excellent movie-making company at a time when documentary audiences seek a view of life on the other side of the battle-lines, though if any war destroys the remnants of thinking in such neatly demarcated images, it is surely this one. *** The Blood of My Brother expresses that very chaos in its fragmented on-screen narrative. Here is what Berends’ film is about. The Iraqi portrait photographer Ra’ad al-Azawi, an eldest son, is about to open his own photo shop. The night before the big day, a US patrol kills him while he is guarding the Shiite mosque in the Kadhimya section of Baghdad. Ra’ad is dubbed a martyr, his funeral attended by thousands. Younger brother Ibrahim, 19, now responsible for the family, struggles with whether to maintain the shop – for which he has neither talent nor business aptitude – or join the forces of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi militia. We see truly stunning footage of both insurgent gatherings & urban warfare – don’t forget, over 120 journalists have died covering this war – a demonstration for peace in Najaf, interviews with exceedingly young US soldiers, Ra’ad’s mother’s first visit to his grave, & Ibrahim’s eventual loss of the shop & descent to menial day labor. We do not see the story in anywhere near this order or clarity, but I’ll come back to that. *** There is a deep sadness at every turn in this film, from the opening moments in which Ibrahim awkwardly tries to persuade his bereft mother that it’s time to leave the cemetery. What emerges, & endures long after the film ends, is Andrew Berends’ felt kinship with Ra’ad al-Azawi as brother photographers. Ra’ad’s delicately colored portraits of children grace the screen from time to time, though initially it’s not clear they are his work. And, with what comes to seem like the filmmaker’s patience with Ibrahim, this movie finally becomes the intended generous act of a stand-in spiritual brother toward the slouchy, inarticulate, actually not very attractive young man. At some point, what flashes as vividly across the screen as the incessant deadly bursts of war is the sudden recognition that recording & telling another’s story is itself an act of kinship, a kind of looking-after the younger brother that Ra’ad himself might understand. *** These things emerge because Andrew Berends is a powerfully skillful and talented photographer whose subject is actually another photographer. The primary flaw in the film is that it’s nearly impossible to follow on its own. Because I had a press kit when I saw it, I had the benefit of Andrew Berends’ statement about his intentions as well as background information. I suspect this film has not done well in theaters because most movie-goers expect a film labeled “documentary” to have a minimally orderly narrative – even though many will recognize figures like Moqtada al-Sadr from newscasts, & even allowing for the film’s aesthetic expressing the chaotic experience it records. *** There’s another setting in which a film like this does fit. And that is where you will be able to see it. As gallery exhibits, films, videos & photos customarily have just such explanatory artists’ statements attached to them as Berends has written for this one. We expect these statements; they free visual art from demands for narrative order & provide context. Once I knew that Blood of My Brother is part of such a project, my discomfort relaxed. Inexplicably, this information was not part of the publicity during the film’s brief solo life as a feature movie. *** Unembedded is the name of the collective gallery project of Andrew Berends, filmmaker James Longley (whose doc, Iraq in Fragments, is also making a stab as a free-standing movie), & four other photographers. All have worked solo in Iraq since the US invasion. These include Rita Leistner, who covered a women’s unit in a Kurdish militia & more recently, women who seek refuge in Iraqi psychiatric wards to avoid honor killings; Kael Alford – she covered Baghdad during the shock & awe bombing; Thorne Anderson, & an Iraqi, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, whose training as an architect shows in his pictures. The exhibit presents 60 still photos plus the Berends & Longley films. Now on tour, it’s opening tonight, actually, at Orange County Community College in Middletown. It later goes to Phoenix, Detroit, & in October, to Yale University. You can buy the book, with all 150 photos, on-line. There’s a website with a generous sample of extraordinary photos. I’d like to see Embedded come to Syracuse – in my mind’s eye, it’s already right at home at LightWorks or the Lowe Gallery ot the Community Folk Art Gallery. Join me? * (1,050) *** This review was broadcast on Women's Voices Radio, WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM on 7/20/2006.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

FILM REVIEW #49: HEADING SOUTH *** (2005) *** Director: Laurent Cantet *** Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Karen Young, Menothy Cesar, Louise Portal *** ******* For a couple reasons, you might be inspired to watch over again Ingmar Bergman’s scalding 1966 meditation on the Vietnam War, Persona. The writer Robert Emmet Long was on NPR just last week, talking about his new book of interviews with Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s long-time screen muse. Deceptively slender at just 82 minutes, Persona was Ullmann’s first film for the great Swedish director. There’s also a surprising echo on-screen right now. Discussing her work in Heading South by phone recently, New York City-based actor Karen Young said that Persona inspired French director Laurent Cantet’s approach to his film’s four monologues. That’s not the only similarity in these two movies about reversal. *** Heading South is set in steamy, late-1970’s Haiti during the last days of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s bloody regime. This seems far from the chilly Swedish coast, the late-night ramblings of Bibi Andersson’s Nurse Alma and the silent retreat of Ullmann’s troubled actress character, Elisabeth Vogler. Cantet’s tale assembles a group of well-off, older North American white women who repair to an insular beach resort and the favors of young, poor Haitian men. Karen Young’s Brenda is a Georgia divorcee who’s returned, seeking Legba (Methony Cesar). She tussles over him with Charlotte Rampling’s older Ellen, a French lit professor from Wellesley College. Affable, chunky Montrealer Sue (Louise Portal of The Barbarian Invasions) completes their trio. *** Direct depiction of Duvalier’s regime is spare but devastating. In Persona, Bergman needed only two short worldly references – a TV clip of a Buddhist monk’s self-immolation and an older photo of Nazis marching a five-year-old Jewish boy in a cap with his hands up – to make his point about private violence mirroring public events. Canter’s film opens in Port-au-Prince Airport as the resort’s gravely fastidious manager Albert (Lys Ambroise), there to pick up Brenda, fends off a woman trying to sell her daughter to get her out of Haiti. Later, Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes pursue Legba in a panicky, desperate chase through market and alley – we don’t know exactly why, though perhaps the terror matters more than the reason. Then, the morning after he rebuffs Ellen’s offers of protection, the thugs dump his body on the resort’s beach. Ellen is shattered. Brenda – whom Cantet calls, expressly without judgment, the most optimistic character in all his films – soon plans to move on to other islands. *** Heading South is based on Dany Laferrière’s La Chair du Maître (The Master’s Flesh), which Cantet read on the outbound flight from his first week-long trip to Haiti in 2001. Fresh from the Sundance Festival’s warm embrace of his film Time Out, Cantet went to visit his parents, retirees training Haitian teachers for an NGO project. The appalling poverty and class gaps he saw rapidly produced extreme discomfort. Laferrière’s book provided a ready framework for cinematic portrayal of the tourist’s position as spectator. Cantet cites Laferrière’s own remarks about physical desire and sex, as both political metaphor and the only means for contact in a society where relations between the classes are so “terrifying.” Indeed Heading South reminds us that this may seem more obvious when women are vulnerable, by opening with just such a gender reversal: the desperate mother and daughter in the airport. *** Laferrière’s short story collection already contained monologues. When Heading South screened in February at the Toronto Film Festival, that city’s Sun observed that the monologues – by each of the three women plus the older Haitian, Albert – create documentary-like interviews within a fiction film. But watching Persona illuminates Cantet’s remarks that Brenda especially struggles to put her sexual experience into language. He says, “It’s more unsettling to hear her talk about it than it is to watch the images of it.” This is much like Nurse Alma’s recitation of beach sex with boy strangers. Moreover, Brenda finds almost commensurate pleasure in finding the words. *** Albert’s monologue – he so hates whites that he won’t touch them without gloves on – sets the stage for Ellen’s private exchange with him after Legba’s death. She confides to this very proper man, whose rank means he must listen, that Legba could make her climax as soon as he touched her – an intimate detail somehow shocking exactly because Albert is her own age. Lest we think this deep sense of impropriety simmers only among old fogeys, Legba earlier stops an innuendo-laden dance between Brenda and a boy named Eddy. Eddy hotly protests, “You’re not my father!” But do the math – Cantet scrupulously provides ages and timelines – Legba was also about twelve when Ellen first hit town. *** Unfortunately most comment reduces Heading South to a story of “sexual tourism” or simply – luminous though she may be! – “Charlotte Rampling’s latest movie.” Both shortchange a film of considerably more layers. Karen Young says she never heard the phrase “sexual tourism” until the movie was three-quarter’s done, but allows it’s “an easy thing to sell it on.” *** If you too recall Young as FBI Agent Robyn Sanseverino in HBO’s The Sopranos, who first insinuated herself into ill-fated Adriana’s life while rifling a clothing rack in a pricey shop, her memorably arresting quality translates well to the big screen. She’s steadily worked in film and TV since 1981. Young found the part itself and collaboration with Cantet so satisfying that “it was hard to come back from” – despite a delayed shoot (Aristide’s chaotic 2004 fall from power), left-over gun-fighting, weather so unstable the schedule changed 27 times and a daily 45-minute drive by bad road to the resort’s set over the Dominican border. *** Brenda’s urgent searches for Legba – when she first arrives and later when he’s missing – frame the film’s central narrative. Her arrival startles all three women; somehow they’ve uncritically imagined their Haitian beach boys were not seeing other tourists when they went home. Among its other eventual reversals, Heading South is really more about Brenda. Her transformation contains a future, while Ellen transitions here to twilight. Young’s nuanced, often primarily physical performance is prodigious and should mark a turning point in appreciation and projects. *** Further, Heading South at first seems a departure from Cantet’s previous feature films, in which he overtly focuses on “the religion of work” – a naïve son’s come-uppance against a French factory’s shift to the 35-hour week in Human Resources (1999) and an unraveling executive’s pretense to his family that he’s working after being fired in Time Out (2001). Cantet notes about this film, “You do not have poor victims on the one hand and the bastards who manipulate them on the other. Everyone gets something out of it.” That Heading South is about these young men as “workers,” whose wages include food and attention, seeps into one’s consciousness like some hot blush. *** All Cantet’s films have US theatrical premieres that follow a testing of the waters at some Lincoln Center festival – this time, the RendezVous With French Cinema series in March. His features are all available from netflicks, as is the made-for-TV Les Sanguinaires (1998), one of seven pieces anticipating the Millennium that toured the globe in 1999. Even The Troubles We’ve Seen – young Cantet was, perhaps formatively, first assistant director of Marcel Ophuls’ doc on the history of combat journalism – screened in New York in 1994. His new project, a fiction film with non-professional actors, is based on interviews with Hurricane Katrina survivors. Probably no walk on the beach either. *** Heading South opened June 7 in Manhattan. It opens July 21 in Los Angeles and in limited release thereafter. Hear Nancy Keefe Rhodes’ interview with actor Karen Young broadcast on Women’s Voices Radio, WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM on Thursday, July 27th at 8:00 p.m. DST via web-streaming on This review was written for