Screens of Summer

Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org)
(co-presented with the Film Society of Lincoln Center)

Enemies of the People
(Directors/Producers: Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath; Script: Rob Lemkin)

This elegaic movie really sneaks up on you:  a return to the killing fields of Cambodia by stealth, with its on-camera protagonist (Thet Sambeth) gently leading you through the terrible violence that decimated Cambodia through the 1960s and 70s. You learn that Sambeth was personally involved; his family was destroyed, yet he has escaped with both his life and his compassion. He seeks out, at first, local citizens involved in the killings, then moves on and up with quiet persistence to Pol Pot’s right-hand man, Nuon Chea. What’s really remarkable about Enemies of the People is its insights into the mentality that earlier produced the Holocaust (co-director Lemkin lost many of his father’s family to the Nazis): “I was just following orders.”

Truth is elastic on both sides: some of the interview subjects claim to be innocent, or to have killed only “one or two” of their countrymen (we learn the real magnitude of their crimes as Sambeth later extracts the facts from other sources); and Sambeth himself does not reveal that his family was executed to his subjects until very late in the film. But his forbearance becomes increasingly impressive as the horrors pile up. And Nuon Chea finally reveals his guilt only moments before a helicopter arrives to transport him to the Hague to be tried for crimes to humanity.

Winner of the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize, and the Nestor Alemandros Award for courage in filmmaking – an understatement if ever there was one. Opens in New York (Quad Cinema), LA, and other cities ca. August 1. 

Presumed Guilty                                                                                                                                                      (A film by Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete)

Presumed Guilty is a real knockout – smart, fast, and thrilling, and has the distinction of making the usually fact-based Law and Order seem like outright fantasy. Not so easy, you might think, and you’d be right. Because the film was made by two smart, fast, and dedicated lawyers – Hernández and Negrete (collaborating with skilled director Geoffrey Smith) — this expose of the notorious Mexican criminal justice system manages, by a miracle of penetrating interviews, cinematography (courtroom cameras are allowed) and dazzling editing to lay bare the railroading of an innocent man convicted of murder. It’s an extremely complicated case, yet the sheer intelligence and energy of the filmmakers tell the story so you can follow its every twist, while remaining permanently on the edge of your seat. Not so comfortable, but definitely addictive. Doubt that it can be carried off in 88 minutes? The proof is in the seeing. Don’t miss it! (PBS broadcast on POV, Tuesday, July 27, 2010.)

Summertime: Sweet, Hot, and Smaller than Usual:

News: you can forgo your neighborhood multiplex as a dog-day refuge with its big, bad, deafening seasonal fare. Search out alternative theaters for some fresh, life-size auteurish treats in many flavors, all of them worth seeing. And you can leave the earplugs at home.

Handsome Harry
(Director: Bette Gordon; Script: Nick Proferes)

It’s always unfair to describe a film as “low-key” – like the kiss of death before a review even gets started. Yet for Handsome Harry, the adjective is both accurate and pulsing with inventive and subtle life. The story of old Vietnam war buddies revisiting their collective Navy past may seem familiar, but it takes several intriguing turns that keep you involved. Played out by very strong performances – especially from Jamey Sheridan in the title role, Campbell Scott as one of the buddies, and Mariann Mayberry and Karen Young as two of the women Harry encounters – the film draws you in with its strengths and yes, its low-key atmosphere, heightened throughout by a really tasty jazz score. The lady-or-the-tiger ending nicely punctuates one of the season’s true pleasures – a character-driven American original. You may have to turn to Netflix to see it (it’s not available on DVD yet), but be sure to put yourself on the waiting list, and keep looking.

Looking for Eric
(Director: Ken Loach; Script: Paul Laverty)

When you haven’t spent time with Ken Loach for a while, you may forget just how much fun his films can be. Looking for Eric can be justly described as a midlife crisis revenge fantasy, pairing a sad-sack divorced father, Eric Bishop (a sly, unshaven Steve Everts), with the testosterone-rich real-life soccer star Eric Cantona. In Hollywood, this would end up in Judd Apatow territory. But, thank God, Loach is on the other side of the pond and simply crafts his mosaics as he will; if their emotional truths have sharp edges, Loach’s sure hand knows just where to smoothe the mortar. And just how, and when, to make you laugh.

The plot? Well, roughly: long ago, Eric left his first wife and baby in a sudden fit of irresponsibility, and has spent decades sinking deeper and deeper into regret for his lapse. His second wife decamped soon after they married, leaving him to raise two (ungrateful) stepsons. There’s nowhere for Eric to go but down. Until, in desperation, he conjures up Cantona, who becomes his therapist and goad to getting it together. But, really, it’s not about the plot, but about the way Loach keeps making lemonade out of every life lemon, every time.

To be honest, I had never heard of Cantona (soccer is not my strong suit). But I assure you neither I, nor anyone who sees the film, will forget him any time soon. There’s plenty of soccer footage that makes it clear why he’s called “Le Roi,” and even more footage that makes it clear he’s a charismatic, gifted actor and comedian with big-screen wattage and smarts to spare. The idea for the film apparently originated with Cantona, evolved with the participation of writer Laverty, and blossomed with Loach and the pitch-perfect cast he assembled to make this gem in Manchester, where soccer is, well, Le Roi.

MicMacs
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet; Script: Jeunet, with Guillaume Laurant

Someone should make a movie about Jean-Pierre Jeunet; there’s just no one like him! His life has been one long collaborative odyssey, with an army of actors and production staff who march to the drumbeat of his very distinctive vision. You can visit www.IMDb.com for the long version, but the short version is a good bellwether: he likes dark, he likes funny, he has a thing for super-saturated color, and he likes making mischief in good company. Having succeeded with some shorts (collaborating with Marc Caro), the two went on to make the dark and funny Delicatessen, and the dark and definitely unfunny City of Lost Children — both memorable, but not for the faint of heart.

Sniffing out a sensibility ripe for translation, Hollywood called, made Jeunet an offer he couldn’t refuse, et voilà – Alien Resurrection! This time, Jeunet led an army of special effects gurus, and the film made the kind of money that would guarantee lifetime employment. But Jeunet had a project in mind that, he said, “should not be made in Hollywood.” He was right: he went home, discovered Audrey Tautou, and made the intimate Amélie – mostly funny and romantic, but still a little dark (without Caro) — for about one-sixth of what Alien Resurrection had cost, made money on that one, too, but also remained an international mega-magnet for awards for the cinematically gifted.

For now, Jeunet is back with Micmacs; his cast of the usual suspects includes not only his (dentally challenged) favorite, Dominique Pinon, the ubiquitous André Dussollier, and the quirky Belgian diva, Yolande Moreau (Sêraphine, and The Sea Also Rises), but also Danny Boon as the leading man, and Julie Ferrier and body-double Julia Gunthel as Elastic Girl (whose virtuoso contortions are central to the plot). As for that plot: it’s funny, a little dark, a kind of eco-comedy of revenge by the Little Guys against the Big Corporations that deserve what they get. Jeunet’s “family” of outcasts plots and schemes, and carries out their intricate high-speed manoeuvres like lineal descendents of the Keystone Cops, drenched in his favorite candy-cane colors. It’s quite a trip, as only Jeunet can design it. Just go along for the ride.


The Father of My Children

(Director/Script: Mia Hanson-Løve)

Mia Hanson-Løve’s second film is in French, and about group dynamics, but there any resemblance to MicMacs ends. Hanson-Løve (a protegée of Olivier Assayas) is well-connected and knows the international film business inside-out. Her scenario, with all its desperate glamor and terrifying risks is drawn straight from real life, and her story of a producer (based on a well-known friend, his staff, and his family) abounds with minutely observed details and remains authentic right to the end. It’s definitely an insider’s view, but an inclusive one.

Starring Louis-Do de Lenquaesaing as the irresistibly charming producer, his real-life daughter Alice de Lenquesaing as his elder child, and Chiara Caselli as his wife, The Father of My Children plays out its story with less sentiment than Day for Night, yet pulls off a virtuoso turn: its point of view shifts from producer, to wife, to daughter without dropping a stitch.

Madamoiselle Chambon                                                                                                                                                                                 (Director: Stéphane Brizé; Script: Brizé, with Florence Vignon)

This is a real beauty, full of nuance and emotional truth. Its leading man (Vincent Lindon) and leading lady (Sandrine Kiberlain), though once married in real life, play unlikely lovers drawn to one another entirely by chance. Based on Eric Holder’s novel, the film makes virtuoso use of camera, light, and sound to capture the tiniest clues to its mysteries. But it also shows a generosity of spirit and sensitivity to its characters that not only becomes hypnotic, but make the film rise far above the competition. Perfect for summer, cool and compelling.

Women Without Men                                                                                                                           (Director: Shirin Neshat; Script: Neshat and Shoja Azari)

While the sheer gorgeousness of this film is hypnotic, its agenda is deadly serious: a clear, sympathetic look at Iran for the ultimate consequences of the Shah’s exile, the revolution, and the iron fist of the Islamic order that prevailed. It is through the lives of four women that Neshat weaves her tale, contrasting their differences in station and class. But even as they bond and care for one another, it’s evident that their position has weakened over the decades, and no solution is in sight. With an artist’s eye to rivet viewers, Neshat’s juxtaposition of ravishing image and and insider’s command of substance make Women Without Men an extraordinary and important debut film.

 

 

Winter’s Bone 

Kate Granik’s Winter’s Bone  has Sundance written all over it, and it’s a good thing: so much praise has been heaped on it that adding more seems like preaching to the choir. But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t expand the fire, so here it is—just go and see it! For those of us who aren’t mountain men (or women), it’s as rich and gritty as it gets. Without hurrying, it gets its hooks into you early on, and keeps them there til the credits roll. Pay attention to them to learn who put the film together, and who carried out their ideas on screen and made them sing. 

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