Sunday, July 25, 2010

Film Review #231: Salt
Director: Phillip Noyce
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor

It’s true that Angelina Jolie’s fugitive spy Evelyn Salt will remind you of Jason Bourne’s sheer full-tilt physical courage and propensity to throw himself off high places. And if you caught the third installment, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), you’ll be able to see Salt’s nighttime leap from the helicopter into an icy Potomac coming – though Salt director Phillip Noyce doesn’t repeat that mesmerizing shot from below Bourne’s still body when, stunned and drifting, back-lit by some light far above, he suddenly jerks to life, making of New York’s freezing East River a place of re-birth for this man with no identity. What Salt won’t remind you of is Tom Cruise, originally destined for the part.

Many readers know – as I write this, Salt battles Inception for box-office first place – that Evelyn Salt is a CIA operative whom a “walk-in” Russian defector named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) accuses, as she interrogates him, of being a Russian infiltrator set to assassinate Russia’s current president when he gives the eulogy at the funeral of the US vice-president in Manhattan. The two men had engineered a major thaw between their nations. Orlov’s claim turns on a decades-old, Cold War-era plot to train a vast, fanatic, unbreakable team of Russians from birth to pass as ordinary folk until “Day X.” To leap ahead, the plan also involves hi-jacking the US nuclear codes to launch strikes on Tehran and Mecca so that Muslims will be provoked to finish destroying the US.

Well, Salt is a double agent, though what she’ll do with that, and why, and what the set-up really is, provide the pull here. Jolie has said that re-writing the part for a woman was tricky. For example, this character wouldn’t have a child because a mother wouldn’t so endanger her child. But Salt has a husband, Mike (August Diehl), a spider researcher, a gentler, more retiring type than we expect for Jolie’s partner, so her fear is for his safety. All of Salt’s relationships are with men – except for the little girl who agrees to look after Salt’s Toto-like dog when she first goes on the run – and none of them is quite Atticus Finch, so next time I’d like another woman in the mix. The excellent actors Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor play, respectively, her laid-back superior Ted Winter and the more aggressive, suspicious counter-intelligence agent Peabody, who see-saw over how to contain her. Only once, as a last resort, does Salt use her feminine wiles and for a minute you’re not sure she doesn’t mean it.

Go back further than Bourne to Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and you grasp better what Jolie has done here. Of course, it’s scarcely possible to imagine a host of women’s film roles without that Ripley ancestor, especially in that quartet’s second film, Aliens, directed by James Cameron in 1986. Believe me, some fans can recite much of the dialogue from repeated watchings of Aliens. There’s the time when the gutsy soldier Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) plunges down a tunnel to certain death with the line, “Let’s rock and roll!” Or the exhilarating moment when Ripley, clad in her giant forklift – a.k.a. the “exo-suit cargo loader” – faces down the mother monster to protect the orphan Newt. Right before you see this, Ripley utters the line, “Leave her alone, you bitch!” Cameron brought unmistakable echoes of Vasquez and Ripley to last year’s Avatar, casting Weaver as his chain-smoking ecologist and finding a Vasquez look-alike in Michelle Rodriguez as his rebel helicopter pilot.

All of these stories of action heroes involving clandestine loyalties, espionage and empire riff on images of death of self, resurrection, birthrights and lost identities that shuttle between the rootless orphan and the disguised, unknowing lost heir. By adding the mind-bending factor of a woman hero, the Alien films took these images to sci-fi extremes, first with the acid-dripping mother monster and her brood of offspring implanted in the chests of human hosts, then further with the cloning rebirth of Ripley and her own discovery of her various trans-species selves.

Political spy yarns like Salt really run on a parallel track, especially in the past decade. It’s unsurprising that such films aren’t concerned with literal plot credibility, and unsurprising that the subject of a Russian menace returns when it provides that resonant image of “Mother Russia.” You can enjoy Salt for its accomplished brute spectacle alone. Salt also offers performances and ideas about the ways we have gotten lost that will linger.

“Salt” opened nationwide last Friday and is now on multiple local screens. This review appears in the July 29, 2010 print edition of the Syracuse "Eagle" weekly.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Catalina Saavedra in the title role as Raquel. Photo: Elephant Eye Pictures.

Film Review #230: The Maid/ La Nana
2009/DVD 2010
Director: Sebastiàn Silva
Cast: Catalina Saavedra, Claudia Celedón, Mariana Loyola

How different the second surprise birthday party is! Sebastiàn Silva’s The Maid opens with a profoundly reluctant Raquel, just turned 41, refusing to come out of the kitchen for the lit cake and presents she knows await in her employers’ dining room after supper. After all, she has been with the Valdez family for 23 years, since before the birth of the oldest, Camila (Andrea García-Huidobros). Mundo, the father (Alejandro Goìc), furiously rings the hand bell they use to summon her – “Can’t we move this along?” he asks, impatient to get back to his ship model-building – and the mother, Pilar (Claudia Celedón), sends Raquel’s favorite among the four children, Lucas (Augustín Silva), to fetch her. He decides, and reports back to the table, that she is “too embarrassed.” Eventually drawn into the moment when the family bursts out with cheers and applause – presumably this beneficent ritual surprise occurs annually like clockwork – Raquel reacts with an equal mixture of pleasure and resentment. This turns into ammunition later when she cuts short a call from her own mother, saying, “I have to go – we are celebrating with the family!” She savors this especially since she thinks she’s just fended off Pilar’s suggestion to hire a second maid to help her.

Near to the film’s end comes the second surprise party, which Raquel herself has organized for that second maid, Lucy (Mariana Loyola). Bestowing a genuine surprise out of real though unexpected affection, Raquel turns the format she’s endured from the Valdezes into a moment of enthusiasm everyone shares. Like the first party, this one is also followed by an unwelcome announcement: Lucy has decided to leave and return to her family. Raquel is bereft. There’s been quite a lot of water, as they say, under the bridge.

The Maid is set in Santiago, Chile, in the filmmaker’s own parents’ gated compound where, he informs us before the end credits by way of an old family photo, there once really had been two maids named Raquel and Lucy and a favorite son who was an acute observer of domestic relations. The boy Lucas – played by Silva’s son – is in part so appealing because we feel Silva means him as a sort of self-portrait and, while the boy empathetically describes Raquel as “embarrassed,” Silva’s willing to recall his younger self as equally so. One of the running comic threads here is Raquel’s almost daily task of washing the 12-year-old’s sheets and pajamas. When she finally complains to Pilar about this extra work, the boy’s mother chastises him about masturbation. Stiff-faced and mortified, Lucas marches outside to find Raquel – Silva drolly has her watering the lawn with a hose for this scene – where he delivers a single explosive word, “Thanks!”

There are other moments that explore the spectrum of gratitude in this film where what’s given and owed is sometimes so ambiguous and class boundaries can be so abruptly declared in small ways. Determined to defend her corner of the universe against encroachment, Raquel – prone to headaches, dizzy spells, fits of stiff-faced rage and some emerging mental instability – sent two second maids packing before Lucy, one a gentle girl, the other a battle-ax. But Lucy disarms Raquel – intriguingly she wonders what the Valdez family has “done to” Raquel – with humor, kindness, an invitation home for Christmas, the promise that she “won’t be here forever.”

Astute, witty and blessed by excellent performances, The Maid is the second film made by Silva and his writing partner, Pedro Peirano. Premiered at Sundance in early 2009, it took a special jury award and won Saavedra the best actress prize. Released here theatrically last October, The Maid earned some acclaim – the National Board of Review named it among the five best foreign language films of 2009 and Saavedra was nominated for a number of year-end awards – but fell short of the Oscars. These days, not making that cut halts marketing efforts for most foreign films, and may make the difference in whether one-screen indie movie houses like Manlius can feasibly book a title. But two weeks ago Oscilloscope released the DVD.

Claudio Celedón worked with Silva and Peirano on their 2007 debut film; the three, along with Saavedra, reunite for the just-completed Old Cats, due out later this year. The ensemble is a taste you’ll want to acquire sooner rather than later.

This review appears in the July 7, 2010 print issue of “The Eagle” in Syracuse, New York, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column. “The Maid” on DVD is available at Netflix, Video on Demand and rental stores.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Photo © Ellen M. Blalock, used with permission.

Film Review #229: Beyond Boundaries in Ghana
Director: Ellen Blalock
Cast: Beyond Boundaries members and residents of Ghana

In the last moments of one of the most powerful sequences of Ellen Blalock’s new film, Beyond Boundaries in Ghana, two small children play on the massive white-washed ramparts of the Cape Coast slave castle in Ghana, West Africa, even dancing a bit to some music in the air, it seems, though that music has been on the soundtrack, cutting back and forth with the sound of the immensely deep ocean waves washing unceasingly over the rocks below. What has been a fairly straight-forward documentary until this sequence – the chronicle of the 2006 visit to northern Ghana by the Syracuse-based organization for cultural exchange, Beyond Boundaries, whose group stops in Cape Coast on their way back to the States – catches you unawares in something less contained, soaring well beyond the journalistic. Overlaid images that suggest recollection, dream and the presence of ghosts, dark passageways into dungeons, the reactions of these travelers once they step foot onto this actual site of the Atlantic slave trade, and glimpses of the churning, unchained ocean visible just past the gunner’s slits in the castle wall – all these combine in an intense metaphor of revelation over what this trip means and what endures long past the castle’s eventual crumbling.

After the premiere screening finished last Sunday afternoon at ArtRage Gallery, the photographer Marjory Wilkins, who had raptly occupied a front row seat, declared, "This needs to be shown in the schools! Children need to see where they come from and that they come from something!"

Blalock is a multimedia artist and this is her first feature-length film. Besides her professional photojournalism and short profile videography for the local daily Post-Standard, she is a painter, portraitist and quilt-maker of note who has exhibited in galleries and been a university-level teaching artist in residence a number of times. Coming in at just over 41 minutes, Beyond Boundaries in Ghana is a confident and winning work. Blalock edits with grace and precision, catches exactly the telling comment and moment, and shuttles with ease between narrative and metaphor.

Every four years or so Beyond Boundaries makes another trip to Bolgatanga – an abbreviated version is scheduled for later this year – the community in northern Ghana they visited first in 1994. Beyond Boundaries was founded by local activists Mardea Warner (who was born and raised in Liberia) and Aggie Lane, devoted to providing cross-cultural experiences and creating lasting partnerships with the communities they visit that support women’s health and financial independence and the idea that all children should be in school. In the beginning, says Warner, they were clear they wanted to contribute more than, say, building a school and leaving – instead, they wanted, says Warner, to “bridge the gap between all those divisions in our lives.” They have also made trips to Native American communities such as Pine Ridge out west, to Canada and to the Gullah community in the Sea Islands off the Carolinas. They hope future trips will include Puerto Rico and – Mardea Warner walked from the front of the room at ArtRage, when this film premiered last Sunday afternoon there, to a wooden door and rapped on it – “Knock on wood,” she said - “eventually to Cuba.”

But the Ghana connection has remained special, and in 2006 Blalock went along to document that trip. Fellow travelers included journalist and musician Jacque “Kofi” Thomas, speech pathologist Stephanie Cross and her daughter Alex (Cross said this was a 50th-birthday present to herself and a 13th-birthday present to Alex, who rates it in the film as far better than a more conventional present like a new iPod), special education Pre-K teacher Valeria Escoffery, and occupational therapist Barbara Flock. The group hires a van and drivers – Gordon Akon-Yamga has been their “chief navigator” since the year 2000 – and they travel and eat as Ghanaians would on a similar trip, landing first in the capital city of Accra and passing through the city of Kumasi on the 450-plus mile trip to Bolgatanga in the northern corner. It is not, deadpans Mardea Warner, your typical Club Med experience.

In Bolgatanga the group meets with partners from local organizations. CENSUDI (Center for Sustainable Development Initiatives) was created by sisters Franciska and Mary Margaret Issaka, whose work includes educational initiatives. Mary Margaret Issaka says on screen of Beyond Boundaries, “We see them as our brothers and sisters. When they came here” – this would be about 1998 – “we just melted into each other. For us, that is equally important as any resources we get from the group.”

Stella Abagre of the Single Mothers Association, which is now training 259 women to process and sell rice and provide feeding programs in schools as well as marketing the distinctively styled woven “Bolga” baskets, says, “Beyond Boundaries was the very first friends we made.”

They also visit the Sirigu Women’s Organization of Art and Pottery, geological formations, a crocodile pond, the Mole National Park and, on the way back through Kumasi, the huge open-air market, the Manhyia Palace Museum of Ashanti kings and queens, and further on, the suspension bridges through the tree-tops of Kakum National Park, before they make their detour to Cape Coast. But the sum of the trip - and the film - is more than its parts. Escoffery noted that she now experiences Africa as her home, and the musician Thomas commented, "I was not born in Africa, but Africa is born in me. Now I know people there, I have seen the land, and it's more real."

ArtRage Gallery on Hawley Avenue has been quietly building itself a solid track record for screening good film right along with exhibiting visual art and photo. Besides the film program curated there by Jeff Gorney ArtRage has hosted a number of notable premieres by local filmmakers. This one took advantage of the wonderful photo show of work by Mima Cataldo and Ruth Putter, Images of Resistance, that had had its opening reception the night before. Blalock says the film will be shown again, and she’s making DVD copies available.

A version of this review appeared in the June 17, 2010 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle and also on the Eagle Newspapers website, - click A&E.