Monday, April 20, 2009

Film Review #194: Tears for Sale/Čarlston za Ognjenku
Director: Uroš Stojanović
Cast: Katarina Radivojević, Sonja Kolačarić, Stefan Kapičić, Nenad Jezdić

Cinema sometimes answers the horrors of modern war and its equally devastating aftermath in the countryside with fierce fantasy. US audiences will think readily of Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 Pan’s Labyrinth, for example. There, a lonely young girl took refuge in a protective parallel world based in myth and fairy tale as Franco’s Fascist regime held sway in the person of the sadistic Captain Vidal, whose mission was to root out resistance fighters among the mountain peasants. But even del Toro’s 1944 Spain is an orderly world when set next to the post-World War I Serbian mountains of director Uroš Stojanović’s debut feature.

Tears for Sale was added late to this year’s Syracuse International Film Festival (April 24 – May 3), so it’s missing from the printed program. Fortunately, there was room for it mid-evening on the first Sunday at the Palace Theater, where it’s the finale to the day’s program in that venue of experimental and fantasy shorts alternating with sober documentaries. Thus one arrives in the topsy-turvy world of Pokrp, the fictional mountain village in a nation that lost two-thirds of its male population in the trenches of the Great War. In Pokrp’s landscape, there seems to be no order save that of legend, curse, luck and their attendant obligations, even as distant Belgrade beckons throughout the story with its glittering new sky-scraper and its "new age" requiring a new dance.

The film opens in an ancient cemetery that’s largely underwater. On the shore, Ognjenka (Katarina Radivojević) and her sister Little Boginja (Sonja Kolačarić) bicker over whether taking a swim in such waters is cursed (the cemetery is flooded with the tears of their grandmother, a mourner by family profession). A voice-over meticulously, sometimes lyrically narrates how the family business has flourished. Only two men returned from the war in 1918 and the survivor of these two – more cemetery doings – blew himself sky-high after lacing the vineyard with land mines. Now, village women draw straws during harvest to enter the vineyard and, near the story’s end, one of the sisters will enter by choice to dance a last time – a tango – with her lover, after he ventures in by mistake.

These images continue. There is a great deal of mixing elemental life and death in Tears for Sale. Thus, the village inn keeps a specially potent “spider brandy” under lock and key, taken out to conjure up the village’s dead, zombie-like war veterans who retain their fatal injuries from the grave as they dance with the living. Thus a stately old hearse serves as a main conveyance in the sisters’ travels and love-making. The film has screened abroad as Funeral Brides and, a literal translation of its Serbian title, Charleston and Vendetta.

Like all good yarns, this one begs re-telling in all its twists and turns. But suffice it to say that Ognjenka and Little Boginja embark on a forced march, to return in three days with a man for the village to replace the late, lamented Grandpa Bisa. As they cross the map, other villages are similarly, comically afflicted. Then they encounter a two-man traveling side-show. Dragoljub Aleksic (Nenad Jezdić) makes his living being shot from a giant cannon as the "Man of Steel" – what better occupation and what more suitable image in a land destitute of virility? His side-kick is the bowler-hatted, mustachioed, initially shifty “King of the Charleston” (Stefan Kapičić), ostensibly the brains of the outfit. The four pair off and repeatedly consider slipping off to Belgrade, but return dutifully to Pokrp and there discover fidelity in the midst of riotous lust. A superb ensemble of women – an older executive type, a witch in a crow’s beak headdress who looses the grandmother's spirit as a flock of red birds from the open jaws of a cow's skull, a lusty young rival, that grandmother, and a bride whose groom was torn from her arms at the alter by the war – populate Tears for Sale.

New-comer Uroš Stojanović has made an extraordinarily accomplished and absorbing film. The son of veteran Serbian screen and TV actor Fedja Stojanović, he had considerable support and talent on-board besides the thoroughly committed cast. A joint production of France, Serbia and Gibraltar, the film had as major producer (and now European distributor) French filmmaker Luc Besson. Director’s Wong Kar-wai’s regular composer, Shigeru Umebayashi of Japan, did the score. Shot over three months in the fall of 2005 and taking three years for post-production, Tears for Sale is both Serbia’s most expensive film to date and its most successful indigenous box office hit. Despite some major festival screenings including Cannes and Toronto, except for January’s Santa Barbara festival it has been little seen in this country and it won’t get major European theatrical release until this summer. One day it’ll be on DVD, but don’t wait for that. Celebrate little Syracuse’s great luck to have it here.

See “Tears for Sale” on Sunday, April 26 at 8:45 PM at the Eastwood Palace, 2384 James Street, in Syracuse. This review was written for the Syracuse International Film Festival’s website,, where other festival screenings & events are listed in detail.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Film Review #193: Appaloosa
Director: Ed Harris
Cast: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Ariadna Gil

It’s a scene that replays the second time as well as you remember the first. Announced by the whistle of the noonday train, the comely St. Louis widow, Mrs. Allison French (Renée Zellweger), unexpectedly alights in the town of Appaloosa, New Mexico Territory, 1882. Gliding through the incessant wind and dust, she crosses the broad main street, makes her way into the café. From his horse Deputy Marshall Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) watches this, follows her with his eyes and his whole torso, cat-like, cranes his neck, almost forgets himself. Even his horse pricks its ears and prances, tightly reined. Heightening all this tension, there’s Jeff Beal’s light film score of strings plucked and bowed, woozy with sharps and flats.

These exhilarating few minutes are as witty and affecting a snapshot of a man’s sudden fascination as exists on film, and reason enough to see this one, although more exist. The movie is last year’s vastly underrated Western from Ed Harris, Appaloosa, adapted from Robert B. Parker’s 2005 novel. With mixed reviews from critics, Appaloosa still did well enough with audiences for a five-month theatrical run and has been out on DVD since January. But Central New Yorkers can see it again on the big screen at the Eastwood Palace during this year’s Syracuse International Film Festival. Afterward there’s a Q&A with actor Tom Bower, a returning friend of the film festival, co-screenwriter Robert Knott and film score composer and trumpeter Beal.

Ed Harris produced, co-scripted and, in his second such effort, directed Appaloosa. He also he stars as Virgil Cole, itinerant mercenary peace-keeper. But it’s Hitch’s voice-over that book-ends the film. If the two men often communicate with little more than nods and glances it’s not that Hitch is tongue-tied. This fastidious, disciplined man begins by informing us that he’d come West, a West Point graduate like his father before him, after the War Between the States. He did some Indian fighting – the Indian Wars also closed down Appaloosa’s copper mine some years back – then Hitch had joined up with Cole a dozen years ago. Appaloosa is the story of how the two hire out to rid this town of its resident warlord, Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), and his thugs, and how each in his way outgrows the other.

Led by hotel owner Abner Raines (Tom Bower), a trio of city fathers hire Cole and Hitch after two of Bragg’s louts accost a Chicago businessman who’s come to re-open the mine, murder him and rape his wife; Bragg murders the marshall when he tries to arrest them. Hitch and Cole settle in, the latter smitten by Mrs. French. Hitch passes time with a bar girl (the excellent Spaniard Ariadna Gil, who I wish had gotten a heftier role as Katie).

In a fairly traditional working-out of plot, Cole and Hitch catch Bragg. He’s convicted, escapes, is caught again and eventually returns to town - pardoned by the president - to set himself up as new owner of the town hotel-casino. These circumstances serve as the means for Hitch and Cole to work out their relationship and that which each has with Mrs. French, some of which centers around whether Hitch made a pass at her or vice versa.

Less traditional is that the promise of Hitch’s first glimpse of "Allie – she likes to be called Allie" does not play out in the usual way; Hitch wastes little time getting clear that pursuit of Mrs. French is not a good idea. But that lovely first glimpse means he has great empathy for the effect she has on Cole – enough to ask Cole at one point a most unusual question among men in a Western, "Are you alright – how do you feel?"

What is satisfying about this film is its more nuanced comment on American life than might have been the case. Ever the reliable measure and mirror of our national mood, the Western has enjoyed a come-back in the new millennium’s first decade of terrorism, "ungoverned spaces," nation-building and our deep recoil at our own violent behavior. Hence such rich successes as David Milch's Deadwood and the Cohen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, for example. The Western has both offered enough distance to work out how we feel about current conflicts abroad and related policies at home, and a ready slate for the reinvention and escape from history that frontiers promise. As a form, the Western often straddles a line between the two.

There are plenty of moments when Appaloosa veers toward literalism. For example, when Cole and Hitch make their bargain with the jittery town fathers, Cole says – easily evoking the last eight years – "We need a lot of laws to make it all legal." Intriguingly, the DVD extras suggest that Harris considered – certainly prepared and filmed – a number of scenes that could have taken Appaloosa much further in that direction. There’s a deleted scene that would've opened the film with the Chicago entrepreneur demonstrating how the town's re-opened copper mine will supply a new electrical industry just emerging back East, followed by the actual attack on him and his wife. And there’s a deleted scene in which Bragg reintroduces himself to the townspeople after his apparent transformation with words so common in public life in recent years, "I’ve been an evil man…. God had a plan for me."

Instead Harris has chosen another emphasis with greater imaginative possibilities. So for example, as a function of his bond with Hitch, Cole is comfortable enough to explore the new meanings that go with reinvention and will find their way into practice. One of these concerns Cole’s taste for broadening his vocabulary. Interestingly, while Mrs. French’s teasing leaves Cole flustered and angry because he’s not sure what she means, he’s confident enough of his standing with Hitch to ask for "the word I mean" when he falters. These exchanges involve concepts and discernment that one grows into with a frontier’s spaciousness – the opposite of using such space simply for blunt liberty as Bragg’s men do – concepts like "jurisdiction," "commiserate," "sequester," "disparage," "arduous," and the perhaps modern notion the killing is a "by-product" of enforcing the law.

Although the film festival prides itself on its internationalism, screening a film like Appaloosa and then offering the opportunity to talk about it provide a new appreciation of classic American cinema.

A shorter version of this review appears in the April 16, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly print edition. Appaloosa screens at the Syracuse International Film Festival on Thursday, April 30 at 7:00 PM at the Palace Theater on James Street in Eastwood. Q&A afterward with the film’s co-writer/producer Robert Knott, cast member Tom Bower and film score composer Jeff Beal. Earlier Thursday, at 2:00 PM, Jeff Beal is part of a discussion on "Music and Sound in Film" in Hamlin Auditorium, Newhouse 3 on Waverly Avenue at Syracuse University, along with sound designer/editor Jane Tattersall, founder of Canada’s largest sound studio, Tattersall Sound. Check for festival programming and special events.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Film Review #192: Need
Director: Rob Nilsson
Cast: Diane Gaidry, Marianne Heath, Gabrielle Maltz Larkin, Brette McCabe, Cory Duval, David Fine

Of the four films by Rob Nilsson that the Syracuse International Film Festival (SIFF) screens this year, only Need comes from his 9 @ Night series, a film cycle of nine movies. Mostly 9 @ Night takes place in and around San Francisco’s red-light Tenderloin District – despite detours to Reno, Oakland, the docks, the aquarium and some other Bay neighborhoods – and roughly over the years 2000-2005. Overall, the cycle chronicles almost 50 characters living precariously on society’s fringe – hookers, homeless, forgers, pimps, vice cops, scammers of all sorts and a few tourists – with looping time and some recurring key scenes and people across films. The aging poet and stroke victim Phil Berkowitz (Teddy Weiler), for example, appears in six of the 9 @ Night films, returning as a ghost in Need after drowning in an earlier installment, and even briefly barges into an entirely separate film, Nilsson’s UC Berkeley campus tale, Security (also 2005). Another, the mysterious and threatening Schumacher (Ron Perlman), though mentioned often in tones of warning, actually appears just once.

In the fall of 2007, Nilsson called 9 @ Night done. Shot in somewhat different order than the completed line-up, it’s been screened a number of times now in entirety, usually three films a day over three days. If seeing Need prompts you to seek out the rest, available in a boxed DVD set from Nilsson’s Citizen Cinema in Berkeley, good.

Need is the cycle’s seventh film and centers on a quartet of women, all sex workers. Three – stripper Jane (Marianne Heath), her mother the prostitute Lou (Brette McCabe), and manager/phone sex worker Francesca (Gabrielle Maltz Larkin) – appear a number of times throughout the cycle; street-walker Petite (Diane Gaidry), who plies the aquarium’s shark tank walk-way for dates and seems unlikely to live long, only here. While some see Nilsson’s work as largely concerned with male protagonists and how they work out their father issues, that view misses much of his attention to women. A raw and gritty film, much of Need focuses the difficult relationships these women have with each other as well as the pursuit of Petite by the creepy Salowitz (David Fine, who at some disorienting moments seems to channel Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort). Need also contains two scenes likely to stay with you a long time afterward for their sheer dignity and tenderness.

One I call Lou’s “Roethke moment.” Addicted to heroin, not getting many dates these days through Francesca’s escort service, and increasingly reckless, Lou takes her business back to the street and alleys. Chased and beaten by two pimps for working their territory, shooting up and crashing in fearsome spots, in the end wandering dazed, Lou has a moment that seems to promise redemption. A silver-haired college professor looks her up after “that night in Long Beach” and invites Lou to join him while, at long last, he writes his book. It’s one of Nilsson’s bitterest comments anywhere – and he’s an old English major from Harvard himself – on a certain form of predatory intellectualism. First, the professor tries softening Lou up with a poem he says she’s inspired him to write. Mightily startled when Lou points out that he’s quoting Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman,” the professor soldiers on, suggesting that “Stanley and Blanche could’ve worked out” and that she’ll have to “pull her weight” in their new domestic arrangement. He means he expects her to keep whoring. After a long and level, wordless gaze, Lou stands and walks away.

Another scene is a variation on one Nilsson inserts as a grace note near the end of several films, in which a couple lie embracing in bed. Here, one story thread concerns how Jane and the wheelchair-bound Bid Qualquiver (Cory Duval) circle one another. Bid appears in four 9 @ Night films, most elaborately in the sixth. Scheme C6 details the physically charismatic Bid’s fierce rebellion against his vice cop father Qually (Bruce Marovich), living on the street with his motorcycle, and the pivotal showdown – recurring several times through the cycle from different perspectives – that cripples him. For all her 9 @ Night appearances, Jane smiles only once as she does at Bid in Need. Having angrily insisted “I can’t” when he thinks Jane wants sex, Bid returns after he’s mugged. What we see afterward is the early morning sky lightening above them as they still sleep through the window that frames the Bay Bridge.

On paper, the 9 @ Night films begin to sound like one of those Russian novels that start off with a chart so you can keep all the characters straight, except that you don’t get lost. Instead, the on-screen recurrence of pivotal scenes, places and characters helps us enter and navigate this world. While not conventional exposition, it still serves to provide bearings. The NYU-based Macedonian filmmaker Milcho Manchevski – who has a similar interest in fracturing narrative time and whose latest feature, Shadows, screens at SIFF this year too – has achieved something similar in his growing body of work by returning repeatedly to some shooting locations and using many of the same actors.

The billiards film Chalk (1996) and then the 9 @ Night films were produced over 14 years time from Nilsson’s weekly acting workshop in San Francisco’s inner-city Tenderloin district, first called the Tenderloin Action Group and then, after moving to the district’s YMCA, the Tenderloin yGroup. Since Nilsson will be present for Q & A after festival screenings plus participate in the politics-and-film panel, plenty of discussion will occur during his time in Syracuse about his eager adoption of digital filmmaking, his reliance on editing to “discover” his films, and his “direct action” method of filmmaking, in which often non-professional players extensively workshop their characters’ back-stories but don’t rehearse the scenes that are actually filmed.

This review was written for SIFF's website,, which lists this year's festival program and events. In addition to Need, which screens on Friday, 5/1 at 5:15 PM at the Everson Museum on Harrison St., SIFF screens Nilsson's first feature film, Northern Lights (1979), on Wednesday, 4/29 at 7:00 PM at the Eastwood Palace Theater on James St. Also on Saturday, 5/2, both at the Everson Museum, last year's Frank Dead Souls at 12 noon & Presque Isle at 7:30 PM. Nilsson participates on SIFF's Politics & Film panel on Wednesday, 4/29 at 2:00 PM in Syracuse University's Newhouse 3 on Waverly Avenue in Herg Auditorium. Watch for my interview with Rob Nilsson in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 4/23, on-line at