International Films

(There are ten film critiques on this page.)

KADOSH (1999: The first Israeli film in a quarter century to compete at Cannes)

Israeli film producer Amos Gitai is a man with an agenda.  In Kadosh, which means “holy,” he tells the story of the depressed women of Mea Sharim.  This very devout Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem raises up men who become, to put it bluntly, religious louts.  Controlled by unfeeling rabbis and financially supported by their wives so they can daily study the Talmud, their women are nothing more than beasts of burden who have an obligation to bear many children.  They are joyless -– but God forbid if they are childless.

Meir and Rivka have been married for 10 years.  They’re in love and very compatible, but Rivka is barren, which means they live under a marital death sentence:  Marriages that don’t produce offspring are considered “illegitimate.”  The rabbi tells Meir to return his marriage contract so that he might marry a younger woman.

Rivka’s sister, Malka, is also destined for sorrow.  No longer able to refuse prospective husbands hand-picked for her by her parents –- yet in love with a man she’s known from childhood who fled the tightly-knit legalistic community –- she bows to the rabbi’s wishes and marries his devout but very disagreeable helper.

All the right elements are here for disaster –- and it’s done up in a big way –- including Malka’s slide into adultery in the hallway of a nightclub, and Rivka’s suicide which she plans to coincide with what she knows will be a fruitless attempt to seduce her former husband.  The film is so one-sided at the expense of the orthodox men that this writer perceived it as devoid of balance.  Yet there are those in the Jewish community of greater Seattle who have lived in Israel and confirm that the people of Mea Shearim struggle with deep depression and conduct illicit love affairs.  It is said that those who try to leave are sometimes “physically damaged” and an “underground” exists to transport people in flight to safety.

The film’s color matches its tone: washed-out and lifeless.  Jerusalem is portrayed as grimy and crowded and without beauty -– until Malka flees the city and turns around to observe one last time the golden Dome of the Rock rising from the squalor.  Amos Gitair’s story is an important one, but he should have included in this movie the reasons that the people of Mea Shearim have for staying.  (Unrated: strong sensuality w/partial nudity.)

(Published by “The Journal Newspapers  Movie Edition,” March 28, 2000)

THE DINNER GAME (Le Diner De Cons; French language; English subtitles)

Dialogue is all-important in this hilarious farce about wealthy French men who hold weekly dinners to toast unsuspecting “idiots.”  The men of presumed higher intelligence have scouts who scour the country for those with interesting quirks and fetishes – in order to win an ongoing contest regarding the all-time biggest nincompoop.  Pierre believes he has found a spectacular specimen: a portly Treasury employee, Francois, who turns matchsticks into miniature monuments.  The naïve Francois is delighted to accept the dinner invitation…but the tables are turned on the prideful Pierre when his victim proves to be – in his own goofy, innocent way – more than a match for double-dealers.  A must see: Francis Veber’s fine hand at directing prevents the screenplay from sliding into slapstick, and the very personable actors (Jacques Villeret, Thierry Lhermiter, Francis Huster) demonstrate impeccable comedic timing.  An exceptional funny-bone tickler.   (PG-13: a couple of swear words and mild sexual references)

(Published by “The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition,” July 11, 2000)

ME MYSELF I (Sony Pictures Classics; English language film)

Viewers at a screening of this Australian-French collaboration were unanimously upbeat and enthusiastic afterwards…as was this critic.  It’s a funny, thought-provoking film, a must-see for anyone second-guessing their lifestyles, single or married.

Academy Award nominee Rachel Griffiths (Hilary and Jackie) is simply sublime as a woman in her early 30s overcome with regret for missed opportunities.  She’s Pamela Drury, an award-winning writer and interviewer for Media News.  She has everything going for her, including good friends and co-workers –- but no husband or children, which surely any woman her age should have had by now.  After a surprise birthday party, she takes stock of her life and loser boyfriend and tearfully considers suicide by electrocution.  Instead, providence intervenes and she comes face to face with the woman who married the love of her life, Robert Dickson, 13 years ago: herself.

Ushering characters from one dimension into another is not an easy task, but director’/writer Pip Karmel managed to flawlessly seam Pamela’s alter ego into the frames both visually and conceptually.  When Pamela the single writer meets the Pamela she could have been -– a wife with three children and writer of superficial articles for the Now Woman magazine -– she’s absolutely nonplussed and unprepared.  Pamela #2 (also played by Griffiths) disappears, and Pamela #1 finds herself in charge of a whole household of people whose needs come before her own, including the youngest boy’s toilet training, the middle child’s experiments with name-calling, and the daughter’s initiation into womanhood: menstrual cycles.  She also comes face-to-face with the man whose marriage proposal she turned down 13 years prior -– he’s sleeping in bed next to her and oblivious to her wide-eyed expectations.

Gamin-faced Rachel Griffiths is in every scene except three and appears so natural that it’s easy for viewers to forget that she’s acting.  She’s delightful:  skillful at projecting both humor and emotion without going over the edge in either.  David Roberts is a great counterpart, perfectly portraying the manly husband who alternates between shock and delight at his wife’s sudden changes in behavior.  The characters are well-developed and hilariously transform along with Pamela in the second dimension.

Film producer Fabien Liron is quoted as saying, “I’m only interested in making uplifting films.”  True to his word, this superb production will leave a smile on your face.  (Rated R: slight profanity; male stripper with g-string; non-explicit sexual situations; bare buttocks)

(Published by the “Journal Newspapers Movie Edition” April 18, 2000)

EAST-WEST (Sony Pictures Classics; English subtitles)

When Stalin wooed thousands of Russian expatriate back to their Motherland in 1946, he promised them the sun, moon and stars.   Besides guaranteeing amnesty as part of the post-war warm welcome, he pledged a society where “all peoples live as one family.”

The reality was in stark contrast to the grandiose promises: Many of those who returned were immediately executed -– some at railroad stations and boat docks -– and the rest imprisoned or sent to forced labor camps.  Passports were destroyed and whole families forcibly separated: They became people without histories or ties outside the ruthless USSR regime.

East-West tells the story of a doctor who is lured by false hope to return to the land of his birth.  He sets sail from France with his French wife and young son not knowing that she, and the other returnees, will be labeled “spies” by the paranoid KGB the moment their feet touch Russian ground.

Dr. Alexei Golovine (Oleg Menchikov) is one of the fortunate ones.  He’s chosen to grease the propaganda machine: He becomes a “model returnee” who’s paraded before Russians and visiting foreign notables in Kiev.  His French wife, Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire), is allowed to live only because he plays the part of the perfect Communist so well -– including sleeping with Olga, one of their “kommunalka” neighbors (five families live in one house).  Marie, who yearns openly for freedom and plots an escape, doesn’t know that Alexei has protected her by moving with Olga.  She’s an informer who was reporting Marie’s every word and gesture to the KGB.

A subplot involving a young Russian swimming champion (Serguei Bodrov Jr.) is pivotal.  His attempt to swim six miles through the swells of the Black Seat to reach a ship bound for France is a heart-stopping portrayal of people in desperate times doing desperate things.  Also, Catherina Deneuve plays a French actress who spends years working behind-the-scenes to rescue Marie Alexel from the collectivized hell.

This film, a riveting tale with great historical impact, was nominated for a est Foreign Film Oscar.  The screenplay was written by director Regis Wargnier (and two Russian authors) and gleaned form interviews with still-frightened survivors of Stalin’s regime: the Russian-French offspring of expatriates who returned and were banished to virtual exile in Central Asia.  It’s a stark reminder of the brutal realities behind ideologies that glowingly promise womb-to-tomb Utopias.  (Rated PG-13: brief violence; a woman being beaten; implied sex scene w/o nudity)

(Published by “The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition” April 18, 2000)

SHOWER (Sony Pictures Classics; Chinese language, English subtitles)

It’s not too late to see this delightful, bittersweet comedy.  Produced by Peter Loehr, who “established the first legal, multifaceted independent film company in China,” and directed by Zhang Yang, it’s a skillful portrayal of venerated Eastern tradition at odds with the modern world.  It was awarded the Golden Space Needle Award for Best Picture and Best Director at the recent 26th Annual Seattle International Film Festival.

“Those who don’t hear the music think the dancer’s mad.”  This old adage exemplifies Da Ming’s (Pu Cun Xin) attitude toward his elderly father.  The former, an attractive, wealthy businessman in southern China, silently disdains Master Liu (Zhu Xu) and his run-down public bathhouse in the northern city of Beijing.  Da Ming, who wears a suit and tie, is embarrassed by the dilapidated neighborhood of his youth and his father’s outdated occupation.  Master Liu wears a towel and runs to and fro while pampering customers with massages, pedicures, and fire cups.  He also referees the bickering patrons of cricket contests.

Da Ming is also embarrassed by his mentally handicapped brother, Er Ming (Jiang Wu), who assists his father at the bathhouse.

Da Ming takes what he things will be a short visit to Beijing, visits his family, and his perspective undergoes a dramatic change.  The modern businessman, who has never bothered to introduce his wife to his family, begins to see them through new eyes: the enchanting relationship between his father and his handicapped brother, the demanding challenges of running a bathhouse – and his father’s respected status within the community as a confidant, counselor, and friend.

“It’s so nice and warm here, and there’s so much laughter,” shares one devotee of the bathhouse.  Another regular customer, a young aspiring singer who’s too inhibited to sing his favorite song, “O Solo Mio,” at the Neighborhood Culture Party, receives unexpected assistance, as does a customer in heavy debt and a man with severe marital problems.

Jiang Wu, who plays the handicapped Er Ming, radiates boundless joy, an angel without wings who daily fills his father’s life with help and companionship.

Da Ming’s relationship with his father is a universal theme about adult children and their inability to appreciate the generation that first blessed them.  (PG-13: one f-word; adult male buttocks; brief female buttocks; brief frontal nudity of young boys).

(Published by” The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition,” August 8, 2000)

THE GRANDFATHER (Spanish language; English subtitles)

It’s turn-of-the-century Spain where the political climate is tenuous, gentlemen are facing ruin, and servants re becoming rich.  The elderly Count of Albrit returns to his home country after unwise speculation in Peru.  The once generous and highly respected benefactor of many counties must now depend on the kindness of others -– including his beautiful but despised daughter-in-law, Dona Lucrecia Richmond. The Count believes that one of his two granddaughters is the offspring of an affair — and only the biological child of his deceased son is worthy of his love and worthy of being called an heiress.  The Grandfather is laboriously long, even for aficionados of foreign films, but the Count’s stubborn pledge to protect his family line while ingeniously quizzing -– and unexpectedly bonding with -– his granddaughters and Dona Lucrecia’s resolution to maintain a veiled past on behalf of her daughters, is nonetheless gratifying to watch.  The acting is superb.  (Fernando Fernán-Gómez stars as the grizzled Count, and Cayeana Guillén Cuervo plays the haughty daughter-in-law.)  The dialogue is full of rich metaphors and the scenery –- Spain’s northwest coast -– is austerely alluring.  (PG: tastefully treated subject matter)

(Published by “The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition,” August 29, 2000)

AN IDEAL HUSBAND

A deliciously witty British film with more than a few twists and first-rate acting.  Based on a play by Oscar Wilde, London’s Victorian era (1895) has never looked better.  Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) is blackmailed by the devious but highly attractive Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore), and his very successful marriage to every politician’s dream wife (Cate Blanchett) is severely put to the test.  Rupert Everett is perfectly cast as the hedonistic family friend, Lord Goring.  He’s determined to retain bachelorhood at all costs –- even if it means turning has back on Sir Chiltern’s sister (Minnie Driver) who, unlike the other sexually desirable but boring women, is able to repartee with him until the cows come home.  A sublime production with superlative dialogue and delivery and playful camera work.   (PG-13: brief, long-distance shot of naked woman)

(Published by” The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition” March 28, 2000)

MIFUNE (Sony Pictures Classics; Danish Language w/English subtitles)

This writer lived in Iran for almost three years, but it’s the first time she’s seen someone urinate on a Persian carpet.

Krestern Jensen is a man ostensibly “without family or fortune” who nonetheless becomes a rising star in the Copenhagen business sector and marries the boss’s spoiled daughter, Claire.  During his honeymoon, his father dies.  Kresten confesses to his new wife that he’s lied about his past and is embarrassed by his country roots.  She affectionately calls him the Danish equivalent of a redneck and he returns home to arrange the funeral.

Claire’s only been told partial truth. Kresten’s father’s body is laid out on the dining table of a run-down, squalid farm that’s hardly fit for pigs to sleep in.  Kresten’s mother committed suicide 10 years prior and his father subsequently went “weird,” burned the furniture, neglected the livestock, etc.  He also has an older, mentally handicapped brother who’s used to being entertained by Kresten’s samurai imitations.  (Mifune is the surname of a famous Japanese actor.)

Kresten desperately tries to keep all of this a secret from his status-conscious new wife and in-laws.  He alternately lies to her by phone as to why he’s taking so long to return and impatiently waits for a response to his advertisement for a live-in housekeeper.

Danish socialism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  A call girl from Copenhagen, who has to prostitute herself to keep her brother in private school, answers the ad.  Liva’s on the run from a perp who’s been leaving anonymous mssages on her phone.  (The messages are so benign that one wonders how she’d handle an aggressive American telemarketer on a Friday afternoon)  Liva’s hired — but not before she has singular revenge on a regular customer (as mentioned above), an administrator from her brother’s school.

Predictably, Kresten’s wife makes a surprise visit to the farm, starts preparations for divorce, Liva’s brother is expelled from school and moves to the farm, and Kresten and Liva fall in love — or whatever they call it in the Danish film industry.  Actually, Kresten forces his way into her bedroom one night after she gives a definitive “no” to his advances, and three dirty old men from the village try to rape her when they find out she’s a prostitute.

Anyone for My Dog Skip?

(Rated R: language & vulgar comments; sexual situations; male nudity)

(Published by “The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition,” April 11, 2000)

BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE (Trimark Pictures)

An offbeat British film with a powerful social commentary contained within the context of numerous, interconnecting characters and subplots.  An award winner at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival…but not for viewers with short attention spans.

Contemporary London, overrun by immigrants and rebellious youth, resembles a war zone.  A Serb attacks a Croat on a bus and they end up in the same hospital room with a Welsh man who has “burned 20 English holiday cottages to the ground.”  A recent East European immigrant who’s just received the magical booklet which entitles him to be on the dole (government assistance) begins to date a woman from an upper class, politically-connected family.  A doctor separated from his wife allows a Bosnian woman, her husband and their formerly unwanted new baby, to live in his house.  An unemployed, drug-addicted youth who hangs out with Fascist-type thugs is mistakenly transported while semi-conscious to war-torn Bosnia — and later hailed as a hero for supplying the Red Cross with badly needed anesthetic — heroin.  And so on.

The challenging cinematic odds and ends of Beautiful People only come together during the last third of the film, and then everything makes a strange, even gratifying sort of sense.  The underlying premise is that immigrant-laden communities are rich ores of discovery and, indeed, everyday Britishers are denying themselves lives of joyful self-fulfillment by being exclusive.  Subtle, dry humor punctuates the most outrageous scenes and the film’s ending is a torturously humorous testament to the unexpected.  A compelling, ethnically diverse musical soundtrack.

(Rating: language; brief violence; war scenes w/dismembered body parts.)

(Published by “The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition,” February 29, 2000)

THE CLOSER YOU GET (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

(An Irish comedy with a Scottish director (Aileen Ritchie), an Italian producer Uberto Pasolini, and British writer William Ivory)

‘Tis one of the mysteries of life that the daft men livin’ on the craggy Donegal coast are ignorin’ the women in their midst.  Maybe it’s the Irish potatoes or maybe it’s the warm beer, but they go advertisin’ in the Miami Herald for young marriageable companions who are “fit and sporty.”  Meanwhile, the village’s comely lasses are so angry they’re kickin’ the soccer ball around as if it were the men’s bollocks.

Sure, and it’s every day the men are hopin’ and prayin’ that the fun-lovin’, sophisticated Americans will show up in time for the annual dance.  The kindly priest holds a meetin’ to remind them to window shop rather than go buyin’ the first suit they see.  Kieran O’Donnell (Ian Hart), the butcher, bleaches his hair blonde, and another hopeful recipient of western charm orders books from Amsterdam in order to be a right fit companion.  Never mind that the village postmistress gets a gleam in her eye and puts the kettle on whenever she she spies an intriguing postage stamp.

‘Tis a fine movie, and a rollickin’ good time you’ll have with beautiful scenery and foot-tappin’ music to boot.  Sure, and the men sometimes act like idjuts — but don’t we all?

(PG:13:  A wee bit of naughty but admirably restrained dialogue and a Playboy foldout of a naked arse.)

(Published by “The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition,” February 29, 2000)



 

 

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