Saturday, February 24, 2007

Film Review #86: Machuca
Director: Andrés Woods
Cast: Ariel Mateluna, Matias Quer, Manuela Martelli

It should come as no surprise that other nations have their own 9/11’s. On that date in 1973, Chile’s fighter planes strafed the presidential palace in Santiago. Thus began General Augusto Pinochet’s coup against the popularly elected president of three years, Salvador Allende. Under Pinochet’s regime, an estimated 3,000 died and another 30,000 were kidnapped, tortured and disappeared. Pinochet left power in 1990, but the first of several hundred charges for human rights abuses and corruption were not brought against him in Chile’s own courts until December 2004.

With perfect timing, Chilean director Andrés Woods’ feature film about the unlikely collision of three children’s lives during the run-up to Pinochet’s coup opened in New York less than a month after those 2004 charges were filed. The second biggest box-office draw ever in Chile, popular here and in twenty other countries, Machuca was Chile’s official 2005 Oscar entry. What is surprising is that this memorable, important film hasn’t made the stateside leap to DVD until now. Pinochet’s death two and a half months ago may have spurred Passion River Films, a relatively young distributor of independent and foreign films, to make that welcome move.

Machuca recounts the days leading up to Pinochet’s coup through the eyes of 11-year-old Gonzalo Infante (Matías Quer), a watchful, chubby, red-haired student at an expensive private school. The sole reason Gonzalo ever meets the poor Indian boy Pedro Machuca (Ariel Mateluna) is that Father McEnroe, in sympathy with Allende’s social reforms, takes it in his head to invite five boys “from the neighborhood” to attend St. Patrick’s on scholarship. A core of students immediately and vehemently resist this scheme, turning recess period and the athletic fields into gauntlets and prompting several baffled, saddened and insistent lectures from Father McEnroe (Ernesto Malbran). As Chile becomes ever more polarized, crowds of angry parents, including Gonzalo’s mother, protest the priest’s innovations too.

A sharp, tough kid without an ounce of apology anywhere on him, Machuca knows the deal and holds his own. Gradually he and Gonzalo become friends, relaxing, laughing, each crossing a threshold of risk and trust when he takes the other home. Fresh from nearly gagging in Machuca’s pungent outdoor latrine, Gonzalo meets Silvana (Manuela Martelli), who’s just enough older than both boys to get them going. Thus begins the more worldly education of Gonzalo. He learns kissing from Silvana on the riverbank and from Machuca, the varieties of standing up. The latter lessons include facing down bullies, joining in the entrepreneurial projects of Silvana’s father – the kids sell flags at all the political marches – and absorbing instant rebukes for thoughtless insults. When the military takes over St. Patrick’s and roughly throw Father McEnroe out, it’s Machuca whose simple word of farewell galvanizes the assembled boys. When that same military invades the shantytown, burning, arresting, viciously beating her father, Silvana is a lioness.

As a sleeper image that finally detonates during this climactic shantytown rampage, “clothes makes the man” occurs early. We first meet Gonzalo dressing himself carefully in his school uniform. At first we don’t see his face and then just his reflection in the mirror. Later during the raid, one soldier starts to arrest him too, until Gonzalo insists on the self-evident, shouting simply, “Look at me!” Woods’ pitiless camera fills the screen with Machuca’s long stare.

Woods attended such a school himself – he was eight when Pinochet came to power – and he dedicates Machuca to Father Gerardo Whelan, presumably McEnroe’s model, whose date of death is noted without further comment as 1973. Therefore his film is a kind of emotional memoir. But telling this story through these characters allows Woods to focus on the human cost of Chile’s upheaval. There are just enough snatches of overheard newscasts, political banners, a wall along the highway with graffiti – and those two fighter planes streaking over Gonzalo’s head on their way to the presidential palace – to frame this politically saturated moment. For kids, it really was scary, and the adults really were out of control. There are other films you could watch – Patricio Guzman’s documentaries (though they are hard to find) and Costa Gavras’ Missing (1982), based on a real American journalist’s disappearance during the coup. But Machuca will fly under all your radar about political labels and reach something more elemental.

This review appeared in the 2/22/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in “Make it Snappy,” a regular column reviewing films that never opened locally & older films of enduring worth. Machuca releases on DVD on March 6.
Film Review #85: Close to Home
Directors: Dalia Hager & Vidi Bilu
Cast: Smadar Sayar, Naama Schendar, Irit Suki

Vidi Bilu, who is half of this film’s writing-directing team, says that the opening scene in Close to Home is her favorite. Given that she started her career as a still photographer before moving on to film editing and directing docs, one can see why. For that first long moment, the screen is split in two by what is essentially a photographer’s image, nearly without movement and sound. On the right hand side, an attractive, mature Palestinian woman’s face in extreme close-up – resentful, alert, controlled, her jaw set. Occupying the left-hand half of the screen, the curtain behind which she stands and looks out. Pulling back that curtain both sets the story in motion and reveals the other half of the interaction underway.

Arab women and their children entering the gates of Jerusalem must pass through this room, lined with small green-curtained booths like a department store’s fitting room. Inside these booths, young female Israeli soldiers dump their handbags, undo their packages and strip-search them. Here, the Palestinian woman submits stoically to Smadar (Smadar Sayar), an awkward, hesitant soldier who might be a daughter’s age. Her own eyes hooded with resentment, Smadar pays attention as her sergeant, Dubek (Irit Suki), teaches her the ropes. Nearby, another soldier named Dana, faced with stripping an elderly woman, suddenly protests that she cannot do this anymore. Dubek insists, “You have no choice. Now do your job.” Pandemonium: Dana opens the double doors, sweeps a flood of long-robed women through. In the tense restored order – Dana is quickly arrested – Mirit (Naama Schendar) breaks the silence first to assure the pacing commander, “I didn’t participate.”

Despite the scene’s brief eruption, what Bilu likes best here is how much detail and quiet can accomplish toward focusing attention. Close to Home is a well-made, unassuming film, better in retrospect than you first think with its sometimes flat, news-reely look. In their first feature film together, Bilu and Hager quickly establish the sense that we are watching something we haven’t seen on-screen before. This isn’t Private Benjamin. In fact, this study of Israel’s compulsory military service for women – two years starting at age 18 – is the first time Israeli cinema addresses a practice in place for over half a century. Bilu and Hager shot Close to Home in just three weeks in late 2004, after six years of requests for financing to the highly competitive Israel Film Fund. Life-long military bonding may be a norm for men, but Bilu says, “It is very rare in Israel for women to talk about what they did in the army. It’s men’s talk.”

Soon after their orientation in the green-curtained booths, Smadar and Mirit are patrolling a few blocks of Jerusalem near the city’s gates. Their job is to randomly check the papers of Palestinian men on the street and record the details. They must rely on these men to cooperate with their uniform’s power. They must avoid Dubek’s surprise check-ups on how well they too follow an array of stifling rules. Soon the traits each showed early on amplify until they are barely speaking. Mirit asks for a transfer – the officer gives her a long look when the meek girl voices fanciful hopes of commanding tanks – and Smadar’s shoplifting for thrills escalates.

One day Smadar walks angril away when Mirit insists she do her share of the work. She races back when a terrorist bomb explodes that knocks Mirit out. This sets them on a different course that will include a handsome stranger, separation when Mirit serves time for leaving her post to go dancing and a final incident in which the uniform’s authority is pitifully useless.

Except for one visit from a male officer who addresses the assembled all-woman company, Close to Home remains focused on the lives of women soldiers. This allows Hager and Bilu to explore aspects of Israeli women’s military experience with unusual clarity and detail.

Close to Home takes the friendship between Smadar and Mirit seriously as a genuine emotional attachment. They have several reversals as one gets hurt or annoyed and rebuffs the other – sometimes cruelly – before making up. They talk about that attachment, though not easily. Each experiments with what supporting, forgiving and missing the other means. It’s not that Smadar and Mirit have a romance – though American audiences might think that’s what’s coming, because friendship between young women rarely gets this space in our films.

Conventional wisdom that army service makes you a man means films generally frame these stories as coming-of-age tales. But the combined pressure, boredom and strictures that these young women endure instead bring out their immaturity. There are scenes of each young woman riding in the back seat of Mirit’s father’s car with him driving, reminding us they are daughters. In fact, the film's title comes from Israeli military slang for postings that allow troops to live at home with their families while serving. Mirit’s grand romance is a bit of bragging to impress Smadar. One day they round a corner on patrol and almost collide with Dubek torridly kissing a civilian in an alley. Both freeze wide-eyed until Dubek releases them, brazenly tossing her hair – a moment easily plucked from a high school corridor where neither student manages the aplomb of the grown-up teacher.

Finally Close to Home explores the apprenticeship in authority that compulsory military service is for an entire culture at a critical age – both for its young people and its nation. From the first crisis with Dana’s melt-down in the green-curtained search booths to the final scene, women soldiers repeat, “You have no choice.” Even the formerly rebellious Smadar tries mimicking that line late in the story. Part of this film’s punch is depicting how often that assertion is really a bluff – swaggering, tenuous, itself adolescent – while at the same time underlining that neither young woman would have stuck around on her own. This is a filmmaking team worth watching.

This review was written for Close to Home opened in limited theatrical release in New York City on February 16th. An IFC First Take Films release, Close to Home is also available via Cablevision video on demand.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Film Review #84: The Conversation
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Terri Garr

It may take awhile until it reaches Syracuse, but last week it was hard to miss national print and radio enthusiasm about a young first-time German director’s film called The Lives of Others. Just opened in New York City and Los Angeles, and Oscar-nominated for best foreign picture, The Lives of Others is about the East German state police – the Stasi – and how one of their dedicated, crack agents penetrates the lives of a playwright and his leading lady in 1984, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This film has enjoyed unusually large audiences in Germany as public soul-searching about the GDR’s old Communist regime accelerates. The Lives of Others comes here during debate over Bush administration policies like warrantless wire-tapping.

There’s an older, quintessentially American film worth seeing. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation opened in early April 1974 with Gene Hackman as the sax-playing electronic eavesdropping specialist, Harry Caul. Coppola wrote his script in the 60s and largely shot the film in 1972 (the Watergate “plumbers” were arrested in June 1972), but consider national events as The Conversation first played US theaters. In late April, the White House released edited transcripts of secret tapes. In June, Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men was published. In July the House Judiciary Committee passed articles of impeachment. On August 9th, Richard Nixon quit. Coppola’s film has just split-second mention of Nixon – frenzied Harry turns on TV news in a hotel room to blot out what he thinks he just overheard – but in 1974 no US viewer would miss it.

Cinematically The Conversation anticipates The Lives of Others too. Coppola says he wanted to show both the technology of surveillance and the people involved in such work. Both films depict radically, compulsively solitary men, the best in their business, moved to intervene to rescue their subjects. Both films depict a man who confidently assumes his immunity and later tears his home apart searching for the bug that betrayed him. And each film makes striking use of music in telling its story.

In The Conversation’s long opening, Harry’s team records a young couple we assume are having an affair. Mark and Ann (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) circle San Francisco’s Union Square during a Christmas season lunch-time Dixieland jazz performance. The meaning of their conversation hinges on the intonation in what Mark says about Ann’s tycoon husband (Robert Duvall) – “He’d kill us if he had the chance” – as they apparently plan a romantic meeting that Sunday afternoon in at the Jack Tar Hotel.

Coppola says he owes much to Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), in which a photographer enhances a photo to reveal a murder. The more obvious reference is American jazz. Harry tinkers with the tape’s sound so he can retrieve Ann and Mark’s exchange while visual scraps and audio phrases of that original conversation repeat jazz-like throughout the film. Punctuating David Shire’s meditative piano score, Harry plays along with various tenor sax artists from his record collection in his sunny bay window. This is more than background music. Coppola brilliantly uses jazz to embody how Harry experiences and thinks through the disparate evidence he has and recalls. This illustrates with equal briliance how jazz itself is a process of musically thinking through an idea.

This reaches its most satisfying in the complex, suspenseful scene when Harry hosts an impromptu late-night party in his office, housed on the remote upper floor of an otherwise empty warehouse. There’s a weekend convention of surveillance industry types where Harry meets his greatest rival, the entrepreneurial William P. Moran (Allen Garfield), who’s just tried to hire Harry’s disgruntled assistant Stan (John Cazale). As soon as all arrive, Harry knows this was a bad idea. Amidst the confusion, the alcohol, Moran’s challenges and revelations about Harry’s past and his assistant’s amorous pursuit of Harry, Harry’s attention returns obsessively to the week’s assignment and his fear about the safety of “these two young people.” When the scene comes to rest, you know before Harry stumbles over to the tape deck that those tapes are gone.

I hope The Lives of Others wins that Oscar. Meantime, American cinema has richly addressed similar concerns. The Conversation is one tip of that iceberg. The 2000 DVD has excellent commentaries by both Coppola and supervising editor Walter Murch, whose 1995 book, In the Blink of an Eye, has been a basic primer for many younger filmmakers.

Written for the 2/15/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly for “Make it Snappy,” a weekly column reviewing recent films that never opened locally and older films of enduring worth.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Film Review #83: The Italian
Director: Andrei Kravchuk
Cast: Kolya Spiridonov, Maria Kuznetsova, Sasha Syrotkin
In the most obviously dramatic scene in Andrei Kravchuk’s debut feature film, a runaway six-year-old Russian boy, Vanya – the nickname bestowed at the orphanage when a couple from Italy express a desire to adopt him provides the film’s title – is cornered in a debris-strewn courtyard by the surly chauffeur sent to recapture him. Panting and disheveled, both bear assorted rips, cuts and bruises from a long chase by rail, car and foot. Wildly outstripped, Vanya turns to fight. He smashes a bottle and shrieks, “I’ll kill you!” As Sery closes in, Vanya slashes his own arm. The hulking man – still bandaged after a thrashing from some tramps who roared, “We don’t sell children!” – wraps Vanya in a desperate, suddenly tender embrace. With new respect he asks Vanya where the boy learned that move.

“From the thieves,” says Vanya. Advising the boy not to do that again, Sery adds, “If you hit an artery, it’s all over.”

A long-time documentary and television filmmaker, Kravchuk made The Italian with a script based on a newspaper article about an orphan who learned to read so he could search for his mother. Kravchuk shot his film at a state-run provincial orphanage in Russia’s snowy northwest. He cast many of the featured roles with children living there, though Kolya Spiridonov, who plays Vanya and easily rivals Enzo Staoila’s little Bruno in De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, is not an orphan.

The story is straightforward enough. This post-Soviet backwater is relentlessly bleak, damp and cold. Perhaps riding a circuit of such orphanages in her new American Range Rover, Madam (Maria Kuznetsova) and her driver Sery (Sasha Syrotkin) periodically emerge from the fog with prospective parents from the West in tow. Pudgy and very focused, Madam is selling. In one scene that mocks industrialization, Madam has set up an assembly line for photos that will advertise the little ones. She uses the same teddy bear over and over as a prop, each time ripped from the hands of the last child who cradled it. Woe to the reluctant boy who hopes his own mother may come back for him. Upstairs, a wraith of a headmaster with washed-out eyes runs the place as Madam tells him. His most frequent word to the kids: “Scram!”

From the dark, holding forth from a perpetual card game next to the boiler, older teen Kolyan (Denis Moiseenko) collects the wages of all the orphans who work. Vanya sponges headlights and windshields all day at a gas station near the highway. Irka, eleven or twelve, climbs up the sides of towering diesel rigs into the cabs like a little monkey, where she spends her days servicing the drivers. Irka (Olga Shuvalova) teaches Vanya to read so he can steal his records from the office. She helps him escape, buys him a red jacket at a flea-market and lies for him when she’s caught so he can get on the train for his mother’s hometown. Irka has frizzy red curls, long matchstick legs below her mini-skirt and a momentarily kind face destined to turn hard and blotchy with sores before she’s twenty.

Despite general admiration for this film, reviewers keep calling The Italian “Dickensian” or describing it as a fairy-tale. Really it is neither. How often “Dickensian” on-screen applies to stories placed at some historical remove that renders the characters’ rags as costumes and their surroundings as exotic. Assorted deformities and those incomparably punned British names become jauntily, benignly eccentric – except for Polanksi’s Oliver Twist, but he was an orphan himself. Calling this story a fairy tale suggests Vanya doesn’t face real dangers.

Although Madam and Sery have ridiculous moments, their orphanage isn’t faintly picturesque. This is no nostalgic workers’ collective that the squat Kolyan has going in the basement. Short-boned, junk-fed prince of a new Russia, Kolyan is like Deadwood’s saloon-owner and whore-keeper Al Swearingen – another miner of orphanages – in wanting the camp just stable enough so he can rob it blind. So in what’s supposed to be a school, Kolyan punishes Vanya for learning to read. The novels of Martin Cruz Smith seem more apt than Dickens here, with post-Soviet detective Arkady Renko finding a corrosive, grimy, home-grown corruption as deadly as any terrorism.

Part of Kravchuk’s gift is that he has cast and directed players who evoke their characters’ past and future ages with a vividness usually found in those curious fatigued moments of loosened associations on a bus or subway, those odd moments when you look at a child and see the grown-up he will be, or vice versa. As a work of self-reflective national cinema, it’s extraordinary to note that The Italian was Russia’s official Oscar entry for best foreign language picture. It is possible to miss the extent of this achievement, distracted by the notion it’s only about an orphan boy who finds his mom.

The Italian opened in limited release on January 19th. This review appeared on 2/14/07 at

Friday, February 09, 2007

Film Review #82: The Lives of Others/ The Decomposition of the Soul
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck/ Nina Toussaint & Massimo Iannetta
Cast: Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck/ Sigrid Paul, Harmut Richter

The first time that playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) has his flat searched by the Stasi, the East German state police, one officer discovers and holds up a volume of Brecht’s writings in silent accusation. Dreyman replies evenly, with a little sigh and smile, “It was given to me by Margaret Honecker.” Margaret Honecker was wife of Erich Honecker, the Communist Party boss of the harshly repressive German Democratic Republic in 1984. Remember this detail for a moment.

The bulk of first-time director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, set in East Berlin, takes place in that year, five years before Glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall. A two-part epilogue brings us to 1991, with Germany reunited. The film traces the transformation of a Stasi officer, Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), one of the GDR’s star prison interrogators, when he is assigned to spy on Dreyman and is thereby exposed to the art and intimacy of the playwright’s private life. In the epilogue, Dreyman, now able to read his Stasi files, discovers the scope of the Stasi agent’s actions, including those meriting unexpected acknowledgement, and he performs an act of gratitude that is fittingly artistic.

The Lives of Others turns first on an aesthetic dilemma and Donnersmarck says he simply used the Stasi’s role in the GDR as a setting to explore that. But the film’s release here – following huge European audiences and many awards, even after initial skittish rejection by the Berlin Film Festival – has propitious timing. Last November former Stasi foreign intelligence director Markus Wolf died, 17 years to the day after the Berlin Wall fell. Later that month, German legislators voted to extend a law requiring investigation for possible Stasi links of Germans applying for senior public service jobs but considerably narrowed the law’s coverage. This film comes during a period when Germany struggles with uncovering the GDR’s Communist past, for which there is some nostalgia.

The aesthetic dilemma Donnersmarck used was Lenin’s complaint to the writer Maxim Gorky that he could no longer listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata (his favorite music) because it aroused a tenderness and empathy that interfered with his revolutionary aims – it made him want to “stroke” heads instead of “smash” them. Indeed, a character in the film relates this anecdote. In forcing his Stasi officer to absorb the softening influence of art, Donnersmarck also gives Wiesler a surveillance subject with whom he is well-matched. The Lives of Others is actually the story of two men who grow into dissent and the woman who acts as a pivot for their undoing along with her own. Dreyman’s leading lady, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), is also his live-in girlfriend.

Back to Dreyman’s statement about Margaret Honecker, intended to preempt the Stasi. Importantly, when this film opens, he is neither a dissident artist nor entirely likable. He routinely moves in elite circles where Honecker’s wife might present him with books considered seditious in other people’s hands. That little sigh before the name-drop – pure early, know-it-all Al Gore. Yet, neither Dreyman nor Captain Wiesler is corrupt or hypocritical. Each believes in the regime. Each has made accommodations that allow him to do work he is good at. Each works conscientiously, fastidiously even. Each has the demeanor of the entitled yet is radically separated. In this they are naïve, men who are not yet good.

The film echoes Lenin’s dilemma with another piano sonata. When Dreyman learns of a respected dissident colleague’s suicide, he turns to his piano and plays Sonata for a Good Man (part of Gabriel Yared’s wonderfully effective score). This music cracks open a fissure inside Wiesler, who is listening through headphones in the attic. He has already stolen Dreyman’s Brecht volume so he can read it himself – he’s hardly on Margaret Honecker’s gift list – and he already appreciates Christa-Maria Sieland’s stage artistry and her secret turmoil.

Part of this film’s great power is that art is never immutable, never the predetermined winner in this struggle for souls. Dreyman must be shaken from a kind of cocoon that art can become. His colleague’s suicide provokes Dreyman. He contacts other dissidents – they have awaited his awakening – and undertakes political writing to be smuggled to the West. Christa-Maria, high-strung, unsure of her own talent, easily over-run, undoes them both. After a rapacious party minister in a black limo picks her over and Dreyman’s reassurances stop working, she becomes Wiesler’s target in an interrogation room, and gives Dreyman up.

The music having done its work, Wiesler’s most electric connections occur with the actress. One night he overhears Dreyman comfort the anxious Sieland, and he later impulsively approaches her in a bar, uttering, almost verbatim, the words Dreyman spoke about her gifts as an artist. Once they meet inside the interrogation cell, Wiesler half-pleads with her to "remember your public.” Behind the one-way mirror, Wiesler’s boss snorts incredulously, “Her public! What strange ideas he has!”

This film also comes to the US along with a 2003 Belgian documentary about the Stasi’s chief prison and interrogation center, the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen. If you see The Decomposition of the Soul, as I did, before you see The Lives of Others, you will sit up with a jolt as Donnersmarck’s characters walk down real hallways in that prison, for you know with a surge up the back of your neck what’s coming for them.

During a National Public Radio interview, Donnersmarck told David Davies that Wiesler’s assignment to spy on Dreyman’s flat makes him a novice out of his depth. Wiesler had engaged people extracted from their lives, forced to sit on their hands during marathon sessions so they could not even gesture as they spoke. This aptly distinguishes the difference between the two films. As expansive, imaginative and majestic as The Lives of Others is, The Decomposition of the Soul is cramped and brooding.

The guidelines for Hohenschönhausen staff, quoted at some length in the documentary, lay out systematic procedures that aim to “decompose” subjects. The 82-minute film was shot in 2002 with support from ARTE, the French-German television collaborative. The film’s title and much of the explanatory text come from a book by ex-prisoner Jürgen Fuchs. Framed with images of a tree branch outside the prison – first denuded in wintry bluster and ending with a green-budded sunniness bespeaking a new hopeful national morning – Decomposition focuses on two ex-prisoners, Sigrid Paul and Harmut Richter. Toussaint and Iannetta visually recreate arrest and confinement during the 1960s, with voice-overs, alternating footage of the two conducting facility tours for the viewer. Paul and Richter actually do this job in the present-day museum that part of the prison has become.

The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane says that if there is any justice, The Lives of Others will take best foreign picture Oscar, a view I share. Such justice should include a DVD edition that carries both films.

This review appeared in on 2/9/07. The Decomposition of the Soul screens for one week at Film Forum in New York City, February 7-13. The Lives of Others opens in New York City & Los Angeles on February 9, & also at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Westchester County, New York.
Film Review #81: Murderball
Directors: Dana Adam Shapiro & Henry-Alex Rubin
Cast: Mark Zupan, Joe Soares, Keith Cavill

This marvelous sports film opens with what its creators call “the Clark Kent moment.” First seen sitting in a wheelchair, Mark Zupan is changing into shorts and a tee-shirt. Laboriously, he eases one leg at a time from his trousers. Then the left leg emerges, encased from knee to ankle in Maori-style tattoo. The heavy, swirling lines recall an ancient warrior’s armor. Then the sweatshirt comes off, his bare arms and torso bulging. Another tattoo drapes around one shoulder like a cape. Cut to Zupan’s garage workshop. There, the Austin civil engineer who wears a red buzz-cut and goatee mounts the wheels on his other wheelchair. These are heavy, solid discs that resemble bronze gladiator shields. When that garage door rises above Zupan, ready to roll, for just a flash you see the Man of Steel darting out of his phone booth.

Zupan broke his neck at 18 after falling asleep in the bed of his best friend’s pick-up truck during some post-soccer celebrating. Unaware he had a rider, the friend headed home and swerved badly, hurling Zupan over a fence into a canal. His neck broken, Zupan clung to a low tree branch for thirteen and a half hours before rescue. Zupan is heading for the 2002 world wheelchair rugby championships in Sweden when this film opens, captain of the US all-stars team. Later he says of his friend, “He’s my quad father – he made me.”

First called “murderball” for its full-tilt, full-contact ferocity, quad rugby was developed in Canada in the late 1970s for athletes having damage to all four limbs. The game has four eight-minute quarters. Players intercept the other team by knocking them over. Nobody wears helmets or pads.

Americans began playing in the 90s. When Murderball opens, no one has beaten them in ten years. Canada has the best chance, coached by Joe Soares, who left in a huff when Team USA dropped him after twelve years. On-court, Zupan and others routinely taunt the hair-triggered, hard-driving Soares, calling him “Benedict Arnold.”

Murderball follows this grudge from Sweden through the 2004 Athens Summer Games and highlights Soares, five Team USA members and a new recruit. Dana Adam Shapiro, a former editor at Spin Magazine, went to Sweden to cover that meet for print. He took along award-winning doc-maker Henry-Alex Rubin, and the two went on to co-direct. Rubin shot the film mostly at “ass-level,” using wheelchairs the way other film crews use dollies for his two cameras. In one too-brief scene, a camera whizzes inches above the court, strapped beneath a player’s seat.

A year into filming, Zupan met ex-Motocross rider Keith Cavill while visiting New Jersey’s Kessler Rehab Center. He let Cavill sit in his rugby chariot and Cavill’s eyes lit up. Cavill’s dark, tentative early days as a quadriplegic puts flesh on what the others, now so self-possessed, got past.

Shapiro and Rubin’s work shares a quality with films by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. They made Brother’s Keeper (1992) about Madison County’s Ward brothers and the excellent Some Kind of Monster (2004) about the band Metallica. Throughout Murderball, you wonder how these guys got access to such unguarded, perfect moments. Besides the stings of defeat, glorious pranks and slyly joyous grins over success with young women figure prominently here. Player Scott Hogsett relates how once a young nurse giving him a bath “ran and got my mother to see my woody.” A baffled wisp of Camp Fire girl asks player Bob Lujano, “How do you eat your pizza with your elbows?” Charged relationships play out – Zupan and Joe, Joe and his viola-playing son Robert, Zupan and his friend Chris. And the neck and neck scores during crucial final seconds were made in heaven.

Murderball premiered at Sundance and survived in a different movie climate from today’s run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, already underway. Besides awarding four Oscars to Million Dollar Baby in early 2005, the Academy named a Spanish film, The Sea Inside, as best foreign film. Both those movies had paralyzed main characters who fought vehemently to die. Since then, Murderball has traveled to a dozen other countries and opens in French theaters next month, surely stoking Beijing anticipation. You know Zupan and most of his guys were training already.

This review appeared in the 2/8/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, in “Make it Snappy,” a weekly column reviewing films that never opened theatrically in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Film Review #80: Pandora’s Box
Director: G.W.Pabst
Cast: Louise Brooks, Carl Goetz, Francis Lederer

When I stopped at the International Center of Photography last Friday afternoon in mid-town Manhattan, by far the most crowded exhibit was that housed in the smallest room on the lower level. “Louise Brooks and the New Woman in Weimar Cinema” is just 25 film stills, not very large – most of them from the Austrian director G.W. Pabst’s 1929 Pandora’s Box – then a couple film magazines from that era, and Pandora’s Box itself, looping continuously on a tiny wall monitor.

No matter – those watching it stood rapt. In the role of ill-fated Lulu, Kansas-born Louise Brooks personified both the aspirations and dire warnings attached to modern women’s abrupt shift in status between the world wars. And it is distinctly her “look” we see in classic screen flappers from Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles in Cabaret (1972) on. At the ICP, one woman sighed and said, “I saw this in 35 millimeter on the big screen in June. Gorgeous!”

Set in the late 1880’s (we know this because the London murders of Jack the Ripper eventually figure intimately in the plot), Pandora’s Box depicts the tragic fall of Lulu in eight acts. We first meet her dressed in satin with a whiskey bottle under one arm and a purse full of money under the other, juggling gentleman callers in a ritzy Berlin apartment. She hustles one out to welcome in the elderly, tattered Schigolch (Carl Goetz) - she variously describes him as her “first patron” and her father - who at once helps himself to her purse. She’s also juggling the rich editor Schön, who tries to leave her to marry respectably, and his stage producer son Alwa. Schön the elder lectures his son, “You don’t marry women like that. It would be suicide!”

This kind of line is always prophetic. Schön does die by gun-shot on the night of his wedding to Lulu and a court finds her guilty. Although Lulu actually is innocent, the prosecutor likens her magnetic sensuality to that of the ancient goddess Pandora, who unleashed evil upon the world. With Alwa, Schigolch and yet another admirer, Countess Geschwitz, in tow, Lulu escapes from the courtroom. Aboard a tramp steamer, an Egyptian brothel-owner almost buys Lulu for Alwa’s gambling debts. Lulu and her band arrive finally in a London slum with posters that warn of women disappearing and snow gusting through the skylight on Christmas Eve. Now frankly a street-walker, Lulu has a last, momentarily romantic date with Jack.

As the woman in the ICP mentioned, Pandora’s Box had a two-week theatrical run in New York City last spring, anticipating its November release in a sumptuous two-disc DVD edition with a restored, 133-minute print. This includes Richard Leacock's documentary and another made in 1998 for Turner Classic Films, plus four newly commissioned options for musical accompaniment.

Partly this DVD celebrates the centennial of Brooks’ birth and the latter-day revival of her reputation – both the film and the woman languished in obscurity for years before the George Eastman House in Rochester re-discovered both in the 1950’s. (In fact Brooks lived in Rochester for the last couple decades of her life, where she wrote a respected, still-in-print memoir of the film industry, Lulu in Hollywood.)

Partly there is wider interest lately in Germany’s Weimar Republic (1918-33) for the mixture of political upheaval, economic panic, artistic creativity and decadence that preceded Hitler’s rise, and for parallels with our own time. Besides the ICP show, the Metropolitan’s “Glitter and Doom” exhibition of Weimar-era portraits runs until next month.

And partly Pandora’s Box is, like the lady said, just gorgeous. If you have never seen a silent movie, this is a good place to start. You can see how film is related to photo in a direct way that is largely lost to us in most modern movies – undistracted by color, spoken dialogue and sound effects, you are returned to film in its original visual innocence and splendor, with musical accompaniment just to keep the pace. Although based on a popular stage play, Pandora’s Box is an experience in image, not language.

Pabst chose Brooks over Marlene Dietrich for Lulu's role, and drew from her a performance full of spark, grace and subtlety. Brooks happened to be free only because she walked out of her Paramount contract in a dispute over converting the first modern detective film, The Canary Murder Case, into a talkie. Thank goodness the Eastman House found this movie.

This review appeared in the 2/1/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly for “Make it Snappy: DVDs You Should Get Around To,” a weekly column reviewing films that never opened theatrically in Syracuse and older films of enduring worth.