John Sayles, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Ulrich Seidl, Seijun Suzuki, Ousmane Sembène, Douglas Sirk, Abderrahane Sissako,

Steven Soderbergh, Alexander Sokurov, Paulo Sorrentino, Steven Spielberg, Preston Sturges, Jan Svankmajer



Saada, Nicolas


SPY(IES)                                                                   B                     86

France  Great Britain  (99 mi)  2009


This first time feature director indicated he wanted to make a genre picture, but one that highlighted the personal relationships.  While he admits to a love of 40’s and 50’s Hitchcock, like NOTORIOUS (1946), VERTIGO (1958), and NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), while also American 1970’s paranoid thrillers like KLUTE (1971), THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974), or THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), among others, what he’s really made is a Michael Mann urban thriller, written specifically to star the leading lady Géraldine Pailhas, reportedly rejecting his initial producer who insisted on a bigger named star only to find another producer in order to make the film he wanted.  Originally a film critic for Cahiers du Cinéma magazine, he also gained notoriety on a Parisian radio show “Nova at the Movies” which is devoted to music in films.  This film wastes no time as Guillaume Canet works with a friend as a baggage handler, where they typically steal easy to reach items for profit.  When they reach onto a bag protected by Syrian diplomatic immunity, what his friend thought was cologne turns into an explosion of flames, killing him shortly afterwards.  Arrested immediately by the Parisian police authorities, they discover he’s amazingly smart but has been wasting his time with dead end jobs, and under threat of a lengthy prison term, not to mention a knife attack in his apartment, he agrees to work with the police in an attempt to arrest two men he saw exchange packages in a restricted airport zone.  The outlandish plot works like a James Bond movie, only here the story is told a little bit differently.


Vincent (Canet) is sent to London, where the two suspected men have traveled, and assigned to work under the authority of Stephen Rea, a veteran officer of the British military intelligence who is continually baffled by the young recruit’s lack of protocol.  As improbable as this sounds, pulling a guy out of baggage handling and employing him in the nation’s secret service, that’s the kind of film this is—improbable happenings in a film saturated in the gloss of an urban landscape.  He’s given a new identity as a foreign aid physician helping to improve third world services and ordered to tail Claire, the beautiful wife (Pailhas) of a wealthy businessman who has Middle East ties in Damascus, including the personal services of one of the men Vincent saw at the airport.  Their initial encounters are amusing in their awkward moments, but he’s encouraged to seduce her in order to obtain her cooperation in building a case against her husband.  Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine makes the streets of London come alive as they initially meet in high end shopping establishments, local coffee shops or even an art museum before finally agreeing to meet at his hotel.  Showing a sophisticated reserve and quiet restraint, their growing friendship mirrors the danger and mounting tension of getting closer to the husband’s connections, which include a pharmaceutical expert who may be trafficking the explosive device to terrorist groups.  While there are many close calls, including the possibility that Vincent could easily be drugged or poisoned, Canet and Pailhas really have a wonderful screen chemistry together, their sensuous romance accentuated by the lush musical score by Cliff Martinez.  Interestingly, the final sequence was choreographed to the music of Benjamin Britten’s “Moonlight” from his Peter Grimes Sea Interludes, Op. 33a, which the director played on the set so the actors would feel engulfed in the dramatic allure of the score. 

User comments  from imdb Author: Siamois from Canada

This nice little European thriller offers a mix of romance, drama and even some bits of action. The premise is simple. Vincent (Guillaume Canet) is a smart, educated young man who has a history of "illicit activities". One day, at his job at the airport, he and another corrupt colleague look at diplomatic luggage in the hope of scoring some valuable. Instead, Vincent is catapulted in an international terrorist conspiracy that will change the course of his life.

Espion(s) features an international-flavored cast and takes place in the UK and France. The movie features dialogs both in French and English and will be best enjoyed by those fluent in both languages since it switches so often. I think this gives an air of authenticity to this movie that I would like to see more often but those who aren't bilingual or hate subtitles might not appreciate it as much.

Nicolas Saada's direction is effective. There is an air of big budget movie, yet firmly European feel. The music of composer Cliff Martinez is punchy, effective yet elegant. The photography is crisp and clean if a little uninspired at times. We wish for more memorable shots and more glimpses of the cities, of the sets, of the action. But Saada mostly concentrate on the characters. Vincent is thrown in this world of agents, high rollers, opportunists, innocents and terrorists. A world he doesn't know much about but that seems to give him a second life.

Vincent is a classic underachiever and is Claire (played by beautiful Géraldine Pailhas), the disenchanted wife of a rich businessman who simply took the easiest way to security. Their relationship, their romance, is somewhat understated yet pleasant to see unfold. Veteran star Stephen Rea gives his usual solid performance but it feels like he was underused. It was also nice to see the talented Archie Panjabi do the best she could with her smaller but important role. If there was a disappointment, it was with the antagonist Alexander Siddig, who mails his performance despite having perceivable charisma and magnetism. He has very little to work with and we never care much for him, which makes the movie's main threat less palpable.

Where this movie shines is as a drama. Guillaume Canet gives yet another solid performance. He's been consistently proving that he is leading man material in whatever he is featured in. He gives multi-dimensionality to a sparsely written character. Where the movie lacks the most is action scenes. Not the number of them, but the execution. They do fall a little flat and uninspired. As everything else, the golden rule is that if you are going to do something, do it well. The knife fight scene and the final airport scene were not essential to the story and the script could have been reworked to avoid those. If they are kept, a director must inject more conviction and character in there.

This is a recommended movie and very enjoyable, although repeat viewings are not very likely.

Plume Noire [Fred Thom]

French writer/director Nicolas Saada's debut film might be called Spy(ies) but the world he describes here is at the opposite of the glamour clichés usually associated with the genre. His film is slow paced, enveloped in gray tones — the London weather might obviously have something to do with this — and is more of a psychological character study than a big adventure full of intrigue.

Guillaume Canet (Love me if you dare, The Beach) plays Vincent, a baggage handler who, after being involved in an accident involving a diplomatic suitcase he's trying to steal, is recruited by the French secret service to seduce Claire (Géraldine Pailhas — Don Juan Demarco), the wife of a man who might be linked to a terrorist network.

What follows is a game of seduction where love will intervene, and Mr. Saada's script mostly delivers the portrait of a confused man, a non-professional spy who struggles to find balance between his duty and his feelings. As a result, Spy(ies) unfolds as a typical French love drama and, if you're looking for thrills, you'll need to wait until the end to remember you were watching a spy film.

With Spy(ies), Mr. Saada aims at debunking the myth of the spy profession by giving us a realistic look at its mechanism. What he shows us is pretty simple and unspectacular, secret services manipulating civilians into getting them the information they need, work which is mostly done through the use of blackmail, seduction — a prostitution subtheme which was curiously also the center of the recent and mediocre spy French film Secrets of State — and usb keys rather than usual guns and gadgets.

Contrary to the recent Secrets of State, which shared the same premise by giving us a realistic look at modern counterintelligence, Spy(ies) succeeds by adopting a monochromatic realism, while the former couldn't find its mark between realism and blockbuster entertainment. The right tone of the script and the self-restraint of the direction are the sign of quality cinema, which might be surprising here as this is Mr. Saada's debut work as a writer/director. However, when you know that he used to work as a critic for emblematic film magazine Les Cahiers du Cinéma, this might give you an idea about the standards of quality he imposed himself.

But Spy(ies) also works finely because of its casting choice and there is something intriguing about leading man Guillaume Canet, as the versatile actor seems comfortable and believable whether he embodies a clean-cut yuppie or a messed-up and marginal character. Hiding his good looks under s scruffy beard, he carries the film, supported by a couple of strong performances by Géraldine Pailhas and Stephen Rea (V For Vendetta). Ms. Pailhas showcases both strength and fragility here, while keeping her French charm — but I arguably might not be very objective here as I've always been under the spell of the Marseille-born actress.

Getting back to the rules of the genre, Spy(ies) ends on with action but a final image captures the two lovers facing each other; it becomes clear that what you just watched was a love story with a spy intrigue in the background rather than vice-versa. This is certainly what you should expect from French cinema, which masters the art of turning any genre into an intimate drama — one need only recall Film Noir…

Reeling Reviews [Robin Clifford, Laura Clifford] [Jordan Mintzer]


review  Brendan Kelly from The Montreal Gazette


Saalfield, Catherine



USA  (45 mi)  1989


PopcornQ Movies  Cecilia Dougherty


Simply stated, Arroe is a black fashion model, a lesbian, who deals with issues of racism in an industry that is intolerant of variation from either the passive Anglo ideal, or that of the exoticized, primitivized woman of color. There is nothing simple about Catherine Saalfield's Infidel, however, as the film uncovers and repositions layers of myth about female beauty, the function of racism in standardizing our ideals, and the necessity oof female self-consciousness in a scheme that demands both conformity and uniqueness. Partly autobiographical, partly extracted from collective experience, this jumpy, tightly crafted narrative reconstructs the process behind the formulation of self-image.


Lesbian viewing and perversity   Jennifer Montgomery from Jump Cut, July 1992 (excerpt)

Catherine Saalfield's INFIDEL is deeply invested in the issues of the lesbian look and desire. The central characters of INFIDEL are a black woman who was once a fashion model and her lover, a white woman. The white woman is played by the filmmaker and her sister. Actually, whether Saalfield and her sister are supposed to be a unified character is up for grabs: Saalfield is heard instructing her sister on how to play the role (i.e. how to be a lesbian), and there are moments when the two appear on screen at once.

The black woman recounts some of her experiences of racism in the modeling industry. The problems of body image and ethnicity are brought up not only by the black woman but a host of other women, all white, who talk about modeling, their looks, and appear nude or clothed looking at themselves and sometimes touching one another.

The clearest voice in the film is that of a woman with a large, wine-colored birthmark on her face, who discusses her family's attempt to get rid of it and the lore of birthmarks. TV and magazine imagery of models of all races are interspersed throughout. The lesbian relationship, and the entire film, in fact, takes place in a series of dorm room interiors. Consequently, while the issues under discussion are disturbing and the characters evidently in some conflict with themselves, an air of privilege, safety, and leisure pervades the film. Everyone spends a great deal of time looking at themselves, at each other, and looking at themselves looking at the camera. Sometimes their looks are pained and unresolved, such as when the black woman regards herself in the minor, draws in blue grease pencil eyes where her own brown eyes are reflected, and then turns over the mirror to reveal a collection of disturbed, child-like scribbles of idealized ladies. But, by and large, the looks exchanged are more about girlish self-consciousness and a benign narcissism.

The split subject, the complexities of women desiring and criticizing each other, exoticism, and racism are all factors that diffuse our vision. In INFIDEL the problems of the specular gaze are subsumed in the pleasures of lesbian looking. I think that Saalfield intended the black woman's story of escape from the modeling industry to be the central theme of her film, and a metaphor for all women's self reclamation. There are moments when the black woman's identity overflows the bounds of metaphor and she occupies a strong position in the film. In one section she is seen lounging on her bed watching a Phil Donahue show about modeling. While an emaciated black woman, the most celebrated model of the day, parades down the runway, and Donahue and a male fashion designer discuss the problem of how to disguise big butts, the woman viewing languorously devours spaghetti with her hands. The camera moves up her body caressingly, like an ad for Levis 501 jeans. Here the subject's sensual existence and her autonomy from TV's oppressive emanations are complete.

But most of the film strays from this woman's personal power, and subsumes her in the voracious desires of the white lesbian behind the camera. The black woman is surrounded by the pleasures and desires of white women in a white environment. The harem-like ambiance overwhelms and trivializes the very issues that INFIDEL purports to address. The sexual attentions that the white women shower on themselves and the black woman are truly seductive. But if this is what it means for lesbians to reclaim visual pleasure, then I'm not sure I'm ready for pleasure yet. INFIDEL could have been really powerful if Saalfield had not mitigated the film's sexual pleasures with the false consciousness of a racial issue that isn't given the attention it deserves.



D-A-N-G-A-N RUNNER                              B                     87

aka:  Non-Stop

Japan  (82 mi)  1996


modern, quick-cutting style on the edge of humor – different


Mike D’Angelo from Time Out New York:

Hyperventilation hasn't been a subject much explored in the movies, but filmmakers are doing their damndest to correct that glaring oversight. Hard on the concrete-slapping heels of last year's Run Lola Run—though shot two years prior to that arthouse hit—arrives Non-Stop (previously known on the festival circuit as D.A.N.G.A.N. Runner), the sixth and final film in the Shooting Gallery's latest series of overlooked foreign and independent flicks. If you wondered how the hell Lola made it to the closing credits without bursting a lung or going into cardiac arrest, prepare to feel triply exhausted watching this film's three protagonists chase one another on foot through the streets of Tokyo...for the entire movie.

Or just about, anyway. A brief prologue depicts hapless Yasuda (Taguchi) casing a bank he's planning to rob, but before long he's desperately fleeing the drug-fueled wrath of convenience-store cashier Aizawa (Yukai), from whose aisles he'd attempted to shoplift a mask. When the pair bumps into yakuza thug Takeda (Tsutsumi), to whom Aizawa owes money, the chase takes on a third dimension, and time eventually contributes a fourth. What began as pursuit gradually metamorphoses into escape; by the end, the trio are running not single file but side by side, laughing like oxygen-depleted hyenas at the sheer joy of still being conscious and ambulatory after hours in motion.

By sheer coincidence, I happened to catch 1962's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner at Film Forum just a few days before seeing Non-Stop, and while it's unlikely that Sabu was influenced by Tony Richardson's seminal work of Britgrit, both films depict the marathon runner's brain as a hotbed of memories and reveries. The difference is that Loneliness, as its title suggests, is actually about something, whereas Non-Stop, as its title suggests, is mostly about its own sense of momentum. Not that kinetic abstraction is necessarily a terrible thing, but Sabu doesn't demonstrate much conceptual flair; compared to the forthcoming Korean action flick Nowhere to Hide, Non-Stop looks positively inert. (In fact, there's a brief chase scene in that movie that's far more visually inventive than anything seen here.) After a while, the title began to feel like a threat.

DANGAN Runner / Dangan ranna   Aaron Gerow from The Daily Yomiuri

World cinema has rarely seen such a trio of losers as on display in DANGAN Runner. The wimpy Yasuda (Tetsuo's Tomoro Taguchi) tries to prove his manhood by holding up a bank after his girlfriend jilts him, only to miserably fail because he forgot his mask at home. Aizawa (Diamond Yukai) struts around on stage as a rock singer, but in his real life is a drug-addicted convenience store clerk who can't live up to his girlfriend's love. The tough-looking yakuza Takeda (Tsutsumi Shin'ichi) swears he will die to save his boss, but when the time comes, blithely steps aside and lets his mentor bite the dust.

The actor-turned-first-time-director Sabu (no, not the star of Thief of Baghdad, but Hiroyuki Tanaka from World Apartment Horror) uses these human failures to hilariously parody the macho vanity brandished by the male sex.

Realizing he has forgotten his mask, Yasuda runs into a convenience store by the bank only to realize he doesn't have any money. He tries to shoplift it, but is stopped by the store clerk--Aizawa, of course--and tries to shoot his way out.

Slightly grazed, Aizawa chases Yasuda all around the neighborhood until the two collide with a passerby--whom we are not surprised to see is Takeda, the two-bit gangster from whom Yasuda bought the gun and Aizawa his drugs. He, too, joins in the escalating pursuit.

This chain of coincidences prompts a seemingly never-ending chase throughout Tokyo. In the meantime, the cops, Takeda's gang (bent on revenge), and the rival mob (who offed Takeda's chief) swing into action until all the participants violently converge in an absurd, culminating showdown.

DANGAN Runner's delightfully parodic excess is epitomized by this chase. Unlike most action movies, where the requisite chase scene takes up a few minutes at best, the three stooges' marathon continues for 80 percent of the film, supported neither by adrenaline (as in Speed) nor terror (Marathon Man), but by rhythmic editing and the sheer kinetic stupidity of the participants.

Sabu's film almost seems to be a return to the origins of cinema, recalling classic chase comedies such as those of the Keystone Cops, but in a more postmodern context, with a complex, though skillfully related narrative style.

With cinematic references ranging from yakuza films to Kurosawa, DANGAN (which means "bullet" in Japanese) is a farce about the construction of (self-)images.

Each of the three runners is determined to play a role for an audience in order to prove his manhood. Yasuda, in particular, rehearses and repeatedly looks at himself in the mirror as if to confirm his performance is effective (this "feminine" trait is another sign of his inability to assume the macho mask).

In one of Sabu's bag of effective tricks, almost all of the characters are allowed an imaginary sequence, a chance to construct their own "film" inside their heads with themselves as the star. One yakuza's fantasy is even presented as a movie which ends when a fellow yakuza, interviewed after the daydreamer's imagined Takakura Ken-like demise, shoves the annoying camera away.

It is precisely this macho bravado, this mistaking of image for reality, that inevitably leads to humiliation and even destruction. But Sabu, who also wrote the script, in the end takes pity on his idiotic threesome.

As they run themselves to exhaustion, the purpose of their chase begins to change. No longer are they trying to catch someone, to win this masculine test of strength and endurance. They are running simply to run--for the mere pleasure of it.

It is as if by being utterly humiliated and stripped bare of costuming by their own blunders, this trio of schleps has found meaning to their own lives, an ounce of authenticity to their otherwise pitiful existence.

And through this quite enjoyable movie, maybe we have found another hope to watch out for on the Japanese film scene.


Japan  (110 mi)  1997


Postman Blues / Posutoman burusu   Aaron Gerow from The Daily Yomiuri


"Does your heart ever thump with excitement like it did when you were a kid?" The yakuza Noguchi (Horibe Keisuke) poses this question to his childhood friend Sawaki (Tsutsumi Shin'ichi) at the beginning of Postman Blues, but it could equally be directed at the audience. How long has it been since a Japanese movie really made your adrenaline flow?

If it has been a while, the Postman Blues signals the end to your long wait. Just as Sawaki, a bored postman stung by Noguchi's query, in the end opts to get off the beaten path of postal delivery to seek his own thrills, director Sabu veers from a conventional Japanese cinema defined by either cheap diversions or dolorous art to deliver his own wonderful package of movie excitement.

The content we get is not exactly new: Sabu's entertainment strategy does not involve dumping convention out the window, but rather wittily playing with and parodying it. Part of the fun is just to sit back and spot movie citations ranging from old Nikkatsu action films and Takakura Ken to Chungking Express and Jean Reno.

The problem of convention is, in fact, the center of Sabu's comedic world. Last year's hilarious Dangan Runner, which played to great applause at the Berlin Film Festival, featured three idiot heroes and a cast of bungling characters almost fatally in love with macho stereotypes. This time, however, Sawaki is less an admirer of these constraining images than their unknowing victim.

Emerging from Noguchi's apartment, Sawaki is spotted by cops staking out the young gangster. Wondering why a postman would enter the apartment, they figure Sawaki must be some kind of delivery man and begin following him. After a few twists and turns involving drugs, a severed finger (cut by Noguchi in yakuza style), and some other details too absurd to explain here, the cops and their criminal profiler become certain that this postman is really a sexually peverted, drug-addicted, mass murdering gang kingpin who likes to dismember his victims.

In reality, Sawaki just wants to be something more than a postman, since that's how everyone seems to define him. His break from the routine is to pursue a love affair with Kyoko (Toyama Kyoko), a terminally-ill cancer patient whose letter he finds in his bag.

That romance is probably the most conventional and cloying part of Postman Blues, but it indicates how kindly Sabu looks upon characters with even the most cliched dreams if they are romantically hopeless. Beyond Sawaki, another such dreamer is the hitman Joe (Osugi Ren), whom Sawaki befriends at Kyoko's hospital, would win the Killer of Killers competition if it wasn't for the presence of a more powerful rival - the fatal killer inside his body.

Just as the mad dash in Dangan Runner enabled its heroes to transcend their categorized existence, it is Sawaki's frentic bike ride against the clock to meet Kyoko - all undertaken without knowledge of the police's high-tech pursuit - that gives him his thrills and us ours. The decision of Noguchi and Joe to help him also gives meaning to their lives.

But it is the cops with their roadblocks and blocked minds that makes them representative of all that is stifling about modern society. Despite their own bungling stupidity and a few good eggs, they are more formidable than the self-destructive fools in Dangan Runner. Their power drives up the ante and makes the smashing conclusion to Postman Blues that much more potent and adrenaline-filled. Postman Blues is an action comedy, one of the better ones in years. But as the "blues" in the title indicates, its world view is ultimately pessimistic. For Sabu, escape from this world must inevitably involve the most extreme forms of transcendence. Yet it is lucky for us that Sabu's own effort to rise above the dull clouds of tired Japanese film entertainment, through raucous and wonderfully radical, need not go that far.

THE BLESSING BELL                              B                     86                   

Japan  (87 mi)  2002


A Chicago world premiere!  Using a similar Tsai Ming-liang style, only without the meditative and reflective tone, a lone man who never speaks, Susumu Terajima, simply wanders aimlessly down the street and bears witness to strange occurrences, all are very slowly developing comedic sketches.  Strangers befriend him and reveal in utmost confidence their innermost secrets.  He seems always trying to help someone in need, but rarely are his efforts noticed or appreciated.  The entire film is largely plotless, piecing together bits of human interaction, improbabilities, usually leading to a humorous payoff. The film was slow, but amusing; none in the home run category.  Sabu was present, calls himself a genius, believes all his films are masterpieces, and took a picture of himself in front of the audience. While he did not claim influence, he did pay utmost respect to Akira Kurosawa. 


Safdie, Josh



USA  (68 mi)  2008


The Pleasure Of Being Robbed  Lee Marshall at Cannes from Screendaily


A glance at the multi-tasking names in the credits is enough to show just how homemade New York film-maker Josh Safdie's debut film is. And at just 68 minutes, it challenges the definition of full-length feature. But it would be a shame to hold either limitation against it, as The Pleasure Of Being Robbed is a charming indie title, suffused with the spirit of the French New Wave of the early sixties and possessed of a quirky likeability that has as much to do with co-writer Eleonore Hendricks' delicate performance as an urban vagabond who likes to steal things just for the hell of it, as with Safdie's sure command of tone.

Premiering at Austin's SXSW festival before moving to its Directors' Fortnight closing night slot, this divertissement with its Super 8 aesthetic reminds us that the best low-budget filmmaking can deliver a celluloid freshness that big productions lack. But the film's grungy look and ultra-slim running time is bound to limit its theatrical potential. Presenting the film (as happened in Cannes) as part of a package with Josh's film-maker brother Benny's 13-minute short The Acquaintances Of A Lonely John could be a fix for the running-time issue, but outside of New York, festivals and specialist cineclub are still going to be the main distribution model.

Editor, co-producer and DoP Brett Jutkiewicz's shaky handheld camera follows gamine, crop-fringed Eleonore (Hendricks) – a sort of present-day Jean Seberg – as she wanders the streets of New York, lifting a strangers' handbag after embracing her, and walking off with a holdall which turns out to contain a dog and some kittens. Gradually it becomes clear that dreamy, carefree, live-for-the-moment Eleonore is not a standard thief: she doesn't take money, and when she starts looking for the car that goes with the keys she's just filched, it's because she wants to sit in it, as she can't drive. But her geekily cool friend Josh (Safdie) persuades her to take him home in the car – and so begins a driving lesson in real city streets that looks alarmingly authentic.

Occasionally the plot's inconequentiality gets the better of it, but before things can drag too long events veer in an unpredictable direction.

Neither over-cute or over-long, The Pleasure Of Being Robbed is a paean to a city and those who fight to keep it on the side of non-conformity. Safdie's debut is so lo-fi it makes the films of Hal Hartley look like Hollywood, but scratch the surface and there's the same air of gentle New York eccentricity. The tasty soundtrack mixes indie rock from groups like The Beets with older classics – like the wistful Thelonius Monk piece that wraps this small, genial, poetic film.

USA   (100 mi)  2009  co-director:  Bennie Safdie  


Melissa Anderson   at Cannes from Artforum, May 16, 2009

JET LAG, LACK OF SLEEP, watching four to six films a day, trying to remember how to conjugate the passé composé: All can contribute to a certain sense of losing one’s grip, of not being able to separate dream and waking life. Did I really see a festooned baby elephant marching down the Croisette this afternoon? Was I really assaulted by a projectile sugar cube as I headed toward the Salle Debussy?

Mine wasn’t the only notion of reality that was slightly askew: Cracked ideas about parenting dominated the day’s moviegoing. Tyros Josh and Bennie Safdie, both of whom had work in last year’s Directors’ Fortnight, returned to the Fortnight this year with their first feature collaboration, the oddly buoyant Go Get Some Rosemary. Starring Ronald Bronstein (director of last year’s Frownland) as Lenny, a wiry, divorced NYC dad taking care of his two young sons, Sage and Frey (exceptionally spirited half-pints Sage and Frey Ranaldo), for two weeks in New York, Go Get Some Rosemary (2009) demonstrates that father knows worst. When Lenny, a film projectionist, has to go into work unexpectedly but can’t find a sitter, he figures giving his kids a third of a sedative so they can be unconscious for several hours is better than having them wake up and flip out when they see no one’s home. Rosemary, much like Josh Safdie’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008), assembles a superb cast of weirdos orbiting around a profoundly flawed main character. Though at times borderline psychotic, Lenny is often the perfect playmate for his sons—maybe because his sense of logic is about as developed as an eight-year-old’s.

Go Get Some Rosemary  Howard Feinstein at Cannes from Screendaily

In his debut feature The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008), New York City native Josh Safdie shot scenes of the Big Apple from a car that were totally fresh—not an easy feat in a metropolis that has been filmed nearly every which way. Now he and brother Benny come close to accomplishing the same, but from the vantage point of a pedestrian in a pointedly unglamorous Manhattan.
That man on the street is an un-ambitious, divorced man-child named Lenny (Bronstein), who manically darts to and fro attempting, mostly in vain, to care for his kids during his annual two-week child custody (the character is based on Safdies’ own father). That they opt for a frequently close-in, jerky camera style and a grainy look could limit the film’s commercial life to urban arthouses in the US, although some European territories are more open to such low-budget American indie fare. Yet the movie’s winning humour could prove a sales asset. It is grounded not in laugh lines but in the odd situations in which Lenny finds himself, and the bizarre friends and acquaintances he comes across (the most memorable being a man who sings Cuanto Caliente el Sol into a microphone while waterskiing). 
A projectionist, Lenny is played with relish by Bronstein, an indie director himself (Frownland), who captures the character’s frenzied immaturity as well as his infectious zest for life. His self-absorption and avoidance of responsibility conflict with the obligations placed upon him when his two adorable sons, nine-year-old Sage (Sage Ranaldo) and seven-year-old Frey (Frey Ranaldo), come to stay in his untidy midtown tenement apartment.
Lenny acts less like their father than their peer, and he makes some unwise choices regarding the children. He wants to have his cake and eat it, too, to have them around while still maintaining the freedom he has become used to. He sneaks out to see women. He nearly kills the kids with sedatives so they will sleep while he goes to work, although the fact he is responding to workplace blackmail by an uncompromising boss allows him to remain a sympathetic figure in our eyes.
Lenny commands the screen. He is the consummate New Yorker: spontaneous, sassy, manipulative. He could be referring to himself when he shows the boys an enlarged model of a mosquito at the Museum of Natural History, informing them that “they are native to New York.” Underneath his adolescent behavior, however, lies a repressed layer of melancholy, most notably manifest when he is home alone after the boys have returned to their mother. Gone is his engaging friskiness, but he is nothing if not resilient. In constant denial, and incapable of letting himself experience emotional pain, he takes drastic action. To their credit, the Safdies leave the finale open-ended.
After a while, the continuous handheld style and gritty texture begin to feel a little mannered, a bit vertiginous. Fortunately, Bronstein’s high-energy presence overcomes any formal quibble.   
Exporting Old New York to France: Cannes Diary 05/19/09  Karina Longworth at Cannes from SpoutBlog

Meanwhile, I spent much of my second full day in Cannes thinking about a Directors’ Fortnight double feature I caught the night before: Like You Know it All, the latest ode to drunken paralysis and hungover confusion by Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo (see my review here); and Go Get Some Rosemary, the second Fortnight feature in as many years from Red Bucket Films and their 20-something progenitors, New York-based brothers Josh and Benny Safdie. Both films are (at least) semi-autobiographical portraits of men who work in film but languish on the far margins of what we think of as “the industry”; both use humor to ingratiate us into the worldviews of protagonists who, at best, display a thought process that’s skewed, and at worse, exhibit behavior that cannot be excused. Where the former may depend on a familiarity with the director’s previous work to complete the joke, the latter’s blend of slapstick and surrealism in what should be super-serious situations helps to crystalize the Safdie style sketched out in last year’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed. Fueled by a go-for-broke lead performance by Frownland filmmaker Ronnie Bronstein, the Safdies’ follow-up should win over at least a few skeptics who failed to see the charm in their debut.

The film’s opening scene gives a fair sense of the tone to come. Lenny (Bronstein) buys a hot dog and then attempts to climb over a fence into a park. He falls and drops his hot dog, and, cracking up laughing at himself, puts the meat back in the bun and continues through the park, eating and laughing. Set mainly over a rocky two week period in which 30-something fuck-up Lenny has custody of his two young sons, Go Get Some Rosemary plays out in vignettes, in which Lenny tries to barrel through the day and fails with increasingly dire consequences. You watch his ill-advised problem solving in horror (it gets a lot worse than eating a dirty hot dog), but, somehow laugh with him and become invested in wanting him to do better, even as his desperate, impulse-guided self-absorbtion seems to evolve into pure insanity.

Though the filmmakers still have a ways to go in terms of equaling their energy, enthusiasm and imagination with technical consistency (there are moments in this film where the wobbly hand-held camera absolutely works to plant us in the middle of a scene and convey the mood of total chaos, and there are other moments where I wanted to reach out and grab the image just to keep it from moving),  Rosemary is a step up from Pleasure both visually and narratively. Shot by Josh Safdie and Brett Jutkiewicz on 16mm film, in one scene Rosemary ups the ante on the arts-and-crafts dream logic of Pleasure’s climax, and elsewhere applies a kind of hyper-verite. Though comparisons to filmmakers from John Cassavetes to Lodge Kerrigan could probably apply, the Safdies seeming to take the greatest inspiration from the anarchic spirit of late-20th century New York legend, reinvigorating the notion of the city as a place where anything could happen. On some level, the movie may even be an unassuming period piece — there’s no overt indication that it takes place in anything but the present day, but I don’t recall seeing a cell phone or a hybrid car, and if the Safdies were consciously setting the story in the pre-Giuliani days of their youth, the depiction of New York as a wonderful/horrible playground full of creeps (one amusingly played by a famously off-kilter, Cannes-beloved American director) and creepy-crawlies would fit.

Certainly, the Fortnight seems to have planted the responsibility of restoring indie New York street cinema on the brothers’ narrow shoulders. Olivier Père, the section’s artistic director, said as much in his introduction to Rosemary’s Saturday night premiere, calling the Safdies “a kind of symbol for us … you will see tonight we have plenty of reason for hope in American indie film, and New York film.” Hope is all well and good, but considering that the last Safdie feature followed up their Fortnight closing night premiere by screening in New York for barely a week, I just hope that New Yorkers will eventually have a way to judge this new work for themselves.

Eric Kohn  Moving Pictures 
Cannes. "Go Get Some Rosemary"  David Hudson at Cannes from the IFC Blog, May 17, 2009


Natasha Senjanovic  at Cannes from The Hollywood Reporter, May 17, 2009

Rob Nelson  at Cannes from Variety, May 16, 2009     


Sagan, Leontine



Germany  (88 mi)  1931


Madchen in Uniform  Don Druker from the Reader


Leontine Sagan's remarkable film sees a lesbian relationship as the only available alternative to the authoritarian order as a boarding school for daughters of the Prussian military aristocracy becomes a microcosm of Germany, circa 1931. Based on a play by Christa Winsloe, performed by an all-woman cast, independently made, and cooperatively financed, this was one of the few genuine women's films of the 30s. In German with subtitles. 87 min.


Time Out

A key early German talkie: a powerful melodrama about life in a Prussian boarding school for the daughters of the bourgeoisie - a bastion of the ideology of 'strength through suffering'. The plot mechanics are predictable - unhappy pupil with crush on housemistress is driven to attempt suicide - but the atmosphere and sensitivity to teenage fears are not: stage actress Leontine Sagan brings an exceptionally warm touch to her depiction of female friendships, and her denunciation of the Prussian orthodoxy is more a matter of subtle imagery than shrill accusations. Whether it adds up to a precursor of militant lesbianism is another question...

Chris Dashiell at CineScene (down the page)


A sensitive girl (Hertha Thiele) does not respond well to the disciplinarian atmosphere of a boarding school, and develops an attachment to the one teacher (Dorothea Wieck) who shows her some sympathy. This German film was made right before Hitler came to power and was written and directed by women with an all-female cast. Although it has become famous for its subtle hint of lesbian desire, the picture is more about the destructiveness of authoritarianism. The strict, rigid methods of the headmistress contrast with the emotional vulnerability of the girls. (And the school's striped uniforms seem to eerily foretell the concentration camps.) The story takes an unusual turn, with a climax which is surprisingly tender and profound. I'm frankly amazed that this deeply humanist film was made at all. Although not a masterpiece of style (the acting is sometimes a bit wooden as well), I was touched by Maedchen in Uniform, and saddened by my knowledge of what was to come.


CINE-FILE: Cine-List  Erika Balsom from Cine-File

The story of a fourteen year old girl's relationship to both her teacher and her headmistress at a traditional German boarding school, Leontine Sagan's MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM is a film marked both by controversy and multiple stages of critical assessment. Although popular in Europe upon release in 1931, the film was banned both in the US (to be released only after significant cuts) and by Goebbels following the Nazi assumption of power. It was not shown again in Germany until a 1977 television broadcast, while screenings at New York and Chicago women's film festivals in the mid-70s generated a significant reevaluation of the film, heralding it as a landmark of queer cinema, with some suggesting that it may be the first film with an openly lesbian storyline. In his seminal survey of Weimar cinema, From Caligari To Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer reads the film as a progressive response to the rising tide of fascism that was to overtake Germany in 1933. Despite its abstention from the expressionism that dominated the 1920s, Kracauer sees MADCHEN, along with films like DOCTOR MABUSE and THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI, as exploring ideas of despotism and rebellion, with the tyrants of their story lines as nothing less than prefigurations of Hitler. MADCHEN's anti-fascism dominates much of the early commentary on the film, which sees it as a critique of the authoritarianism of the Prussian school system and an exploration of the emotional ramifications of life under dictatorship. However, such a reading obscures the film's palpable lesbian cadence. As B. Ruby Rich has written, " ... most important to the film's reputation through the years has been its significance as an anti-authoritarian and prophetically anti-fascist film....In emphasizing the film's progressive stance in relation to the Nazi assumption of power, however, film historians have tended to overlook, minimize, or trivialize the film's central concern with love between women... One of the few films to have an inherently gay sensibility, it is also one of the most central to establishing a history of lesbian cinema."

BBCi - Films  Jason Wood

Leontine Sagan's ground-breaking early German talkie was representative of a new kind of film which emerged from a period in Weimar history when homosexuality was seen as fashionable. Set in almost exclusively all-female environments, the films (of which Mädchen in Uniform was one of the first - and certainly one of the best) can be read as pre-cursors to militant lesbianism.

Mädchen is set in a Prussian boarding school for the daughters of officers and the bourgeoisie. It follows the part-tragic story of an unhappy pupil, Manuela (Thiele) whose crush on her angelic teacher, Fraulein Von Bernburg (Wieck - astounding) ruffles the feathers of the demonic Headmistress (Unda, suitably terrifying and icy).

The headmistress sets out to destroy the fragile girl who slowly begins to contemplate suicide as the only escape from her suffering and torment, all the while oblivious to her teacher's kindness and the glowing esteem with which her classmates are beginning to view her.

The premise of the film (which simply drips atmosphere and angst) is simple and plays as the most dramatic and heart-wrenching of melodrama's. It is beautifully crafted and performed, evocatively lit, and sensitively directed by former Austrian stage actress Sagan - amazingly it was her début and given the political repercussions she subsequently suffered, something of a baptism of fire.

Although one may view this film as simply a great love story and an anti-fascist call to arms, it was quickly re-claimed as a landmark film in the evolution of Queer cinema, becoming an important and challenging piece of film-making in this context. But in whatever context one views it, the depth, beauty, and compassion of the film is undeniable and it will forever retain an important place in cinematic and sexual history.

Maedchen In Uniform   From repressive tolerance to erotic liberation, by B. Ruby Rich from Jump Cut


The Celluloid Closet  Looking for what isn't there, by Martha Fleming from Jump Cut


Black Hole Reviews


Ozus' World Movie Reviews [Dennis Schwartz]


The New York Times (Mordaunt Hall)


Sai, Yoichi



Japan  2004


Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack:


Those festival programmers sure are cunning, holding this film back until the end of the festival when we're all sleep-deprived and vulnerable, all our steely discernment worn down until we just let loose with a collective "Awwww...." From a critical perspective, making a film about the life cycle of a cute little doggie is dirty pool, like competing with the aid of a performance-enhancing steroid. But despite this, I must say that Sai gives the material if not the best possible treatment, certainly a skillful and intelligent enough overall structure to obviate needless mawkishness. His depiction of Quill's relationship with his blind owner, a forceful, no-nonsense activist for the disabled, is particularly well conceived. (Watch for the moment at the rec center when the man is speaking to his wife with a group of his friends, and he replies to her question both verbally and in sign language.) The movie hits its emotional pivot points like a machine, but the highest compliment I can pay Quill is that it manages to manipulate without being ruthless about it. It's a deeply humane film, and I felt no need to harden my heart against it. I.e., I wept like a little baby. When this gets released -- not if, when -- I suspect it'll become the most successful Japanese film since the 60s. It can't miss. Slap the Sony Classics logo on this puppy and watch him go.


Saïto, Daïchi



Canada  (10 mi)  2009


2009 New York Film Festival / Views From the Avant-Garde ("The Home Game"  Michael Sicinski from The Academic Hack, Program Eleven

Trees of Syntax is a short work which, as the title obliquely promises, focuses on dense foliage and trunk patterns of what seems like hundreds of trees (although on 2nd viewing I thought I saw certain areas of park recur). What Saïto does is to generate a photographic system whereby the body of the images -- the trees themselves -- are the sole figure in a super-high-contrast photographic field, surrounded by a dense black background. Rather than the images fading in and out, they seem to pop onto the screen only to be resubmerged into the inky darkness a half-second later. Trees of Syntax utilizes extreme high-contrast printing to allow the trees to "appear" from an isolated visual field, registering as pure, only partially representational forms. At other points in the film, it appears as though Saïto has printed his "image track" through a differentially-engraved black-leader scrim, such that his carvings into the emulsion can control how much of the original image of the trees will come through visually, and when, and how it will retract. This process would be complex enough in itself, but Saïto has also subjected the tree footage to radiant, almost searing colors, so that the forms that burst through the wall of black murk are like energy-charged globules of pure light, glistening like stained glass, falling away like fireworks. It's impossible not to think of Brakhage's hand-painted films while viewing Trees of Syntax, but Saïto's use of color, shape and movement are exceedingly different. He chips away at these charmed particles specifically in order to keep them balanced on the edge of representational intelligibility.

Like Impressionist painting outfitted with a new, late-modernist attitude, Trees of Syntax plays with conditions of light and texture, but also with human cognition pitched at a slight but rather exciting panic mode. In musical terms, the film is an agitato, and the film's soundtrack, by violinist Malcolm Goldstein, is a rare instance of a score that functions in tandem with the experimental film of which it is a part. Goldstein's jagged Webern / Boulez style modernism, all jumps and jots, perfectly amplifies Saïto's continual playing against the dark void. And, much as the Goldstein score communicates rough edges prodding the surrounding silence, Saïto's tactile method of layering results in a picture plane that vibrates even when its denotative contents -- the same tree -- have not changed. That's because, of course, the negative space is fluctuating, generating a kind of artificial wind. What's more, Saïto's color scheme often shifts within single one-second passages, in ways either subtle (say, between lime and kelly green) or dramatic (green against lilac, for example). While Saïto's eye as a colorist does owe a debt to Brakhage (something I suspect he'd freely admit), his orchestration of these painterly gestures within the circumscribed bounds of rapidly shifting pictures -- trees and foliage -- produces an aesthetic that bears little of Brakhage's sweep of line and gesture, replacing it with the jittery vibration of blocks of color, interrupted mid-movement by "obstructions" which are, ironically, their very subject matter.

More simply, Saïto's dazzling forms keep running into trees. In fact, the film's very title articulates the deep ambivalence with which it regards these organic shapes. Saïto aims to confront them with an organizational principle of some kind, however tentative: "trees of syntax" form the one, sometimes two vertical formations that mold the individual frames; "leaves of axis" take those forms out toward the edges of the frame, much as leaves function as the axes in botanical terms -- longitudinal support and arrangement. Although Saïto's film is too frantic to provide classic structuralism (and who'd want that anyway?), it could be said to invoke a sort of scientific average, the sum of the compositions providing a way to think about trees as potential components of film form. Again, a dialectic: how can an artist make use of the natural world while allowing it to retain its fundamental character? In spite of being constructed according to some very clear plans, Trees of Syntax still scrambles our sensorium, providing an alternate map through the woods. Destination: lost. Rigorously, epiphanically lost.

[ADDENDUM: Mr. Saïto was kind enough to contact me privately regarding this review, and as you'll note from the semi-redacted portions above, I was incorrect about certain of his production techniques. I have a tendency to do very little advance reading prior to writing about a film, since I am always interested in trying to analytically describe my viewing experience. This sometimes leads to errors. I'm not perfect, and I misidentify technical details (especially when I'm forced to view films on video).But I sometimes leave the errors there since I think they describe some actual aspect of the film as a viewing event, even if I am not accurately telling you how the film gets you there. Nevertheless, I do strive for accuracy, and as per Mr. Saïto's correction, there is no painting, hand tinting or scratching in Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis. The effects are achieved through skillful processing and printing technique, and the combination of various film stocks. (Some of this I probably should have guessed...) Saying more is probably unnecessary. Again, thanks to Daïchi Saïto for the clarification.]

Sala, Pawel



Poland  (95 mi)  2010


This film played at the Polish International Film Festival, but the subtitles ended after about ten minutes, leaving the rest accessible only for a Polish speaking audience.  A dozen or so people walked out, as the film was shown on a DVD with defective subtitling.  Inspired by true events, the filmmaker takes a stab at recreating the psychological undercurrents leading up to a brutal murder.  Opening and closing in the present where two kids are being arrested for the murder of their mother, the film backtracks initially by days, then weeks, and months, showing a family in turmoil, especially the occasional ranting and out-of-control older son Artur, age 22, who is idolized by his younger 12-year old brother Marcin.  On one of the first few days, a decapitated head is discovered, while going back a few more days, a bloody knife can be seen in Artur’s hands where the audience can’t see what’s happening just offscreen.  Without dialogue, all anyone could do is draw inferences from what we see, where the director uses a few visual flourishes, such as mutiple mirror shots, as many as four mirrors in one shot where there is constant movement continually altering the look of the screen.  But to what end this is used is hard to say.  Also the mother has a habit of picking up stray cats, where there are over a dozen cats in the frame for all of the indoor shots, but more importantly, we hear the bickering sound of cats constantly growling and fighting with one another.  The mother appears to have been married to a military husband, but when challenged by Artur, he eventually leaves the home, leading a remote and solitary life, almost as if imprisoned.  When she goes to visit him, there are no sparks left between them.  But as the film keeps moving backwards in time, reminiscent of IRREVERSIBLE (2002), we see some of their happier days, where instead of the aggressive sounds of feral cats, we hear the peaceful chirps of birds in the forest at a sunny family picnic, where the couple makes love under the canopy of trees, where even the dreary winter colors come alive for a blissful summer moment of seeming innocence.  What is clear is that the two sons are the animals, not the cats, living under this mother’s roof, where it’s hard to draw any other conclusions without dialogue.      


Variety (Alissa Simon) review

An experiment in flashback structure reaps diminishing returns in somber drama "Mother Teresa of Cats," from debuting Polish helmer Pawel Sala. Based on the brutal real-life murder of a mother by her two sons, pic plods backward in time from the arrest of the culprits in a succession of short scenes that mark an unsuccessful attempt to make psychological sense of the crime. Slated to open domestically in September, this is bleak, arty fare that will rep catnip to certain parts of the international fest circuit.

Saleswoman Teresa (Ewa Skibinska) and military hubby Hubert (Mariusz Bonaszewski) spawned sons Artur (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz, impressive), 22, and Marcin (Filip Garbacz), 12, as well as a young daughter. Increasingly unruly, Artur claims he can read minds, predict events and bring the dead back to life. He also says he's been abused by his father. Given the excessive number of felines Teresa keeps around the house, it's clear something's not right with this family, but exactly what remains vague. Despite valiant thesping, the characters remain ciphers. Steady, blue-green toned lensing by Mikolaj Lebkowski anchors pic's dispassionate tone; other tech credits are fine.

Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Mikolaj Lebkowski; editor, Agnieszka Glinska; music, Marcin Krzyzanowski; production designer, Katarzyna Jarnuszkiewicz; costume designer, Monika Jagodzinska. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 12, 2010. (Also in Karlovy Vary Festival -- competing.) Running time: 90 MIN.

Saldanha, Carlos


ICE AGE:  THE MELTDOWN                   B-                    81

USA  (90 mi)  2006


Ever want to work as a fur and feather designer?  Then this is the film for you.  Continuing the family theme of a wooly mammoth, a sloth, and a saber tooth tiger all looking out for one another, while a lone crazed squirrel is in pursuit of the ultimate acorn, which opened the previous film which this director co-directed, this time we add the voice of Queen Latifah as a female wooly mammoth who thinks she’s a possum, as she was abandoned as a child and has been raised by possums, hanging upside down from trees when she sleeps, and considers herself a sister to her two very clever brothers, who are a constant delight, an irrepressible force that no one else seems to be able to contend with.  Unlike Romano’s ultra-dour mammoth, Latifah has a gas with her little friends, spending as much time at play as they can.


Following the earlier film which was advertised as the coolest movie in 16,000 years, here the title suggests the world is about to be wiped out, but it never really materializes, probably because there are too many kids watching in the audience.  Witnessing an apocalyptic disaster might cause some emotional problems with the kids, so much of this is kept friendly and amusing, including musical numbers from thousands of Simon Says sloths and a terrific copy cat segment from flying vultures.  Also, there’s an interesting acorn heaven sequence.  All in all it’s easy to watch, sometimes funny, occasionally touching, but never rises above the safe zone.


Saleem, Hiner



France  Kurdistan  (96 mi)  2005


Allan Hunter in Cannes:

One person’s illegal war is another’s act of sweet liberation in Kilometre Zero. Inspired by the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurdistan director Hiner Saleem has made a film that vividly illuminates the brutal realities of life under the tyrant’s rule. Petty dictators lurk at every checkpoint, people are casually executed at the side of the road and hatred flourishes in the bitter divide between Arab and Kurd.

Despite Saleem’s claims that this is not a political film, it is hard not to perceive it in those terms and occasionally righteous anger gets in the way of a more incisive drama.

Nonetheless, this has some comic touches to lighten the overall tone and a poignancy in the ultimate resolution of the story. There should be enough interest in the subject matter and the next film from the Vodka Lemon director to ensure modest arthouse prospects for this competition entry. The film premiered in competition at Cannes.

The film begins at the very moment of Saleem’s inspiration in 2003 with radio reports of the fall of Saddam Hussein. We are then reminded that in 1988, Chemical Ali killed 182,000 Kurds.

In 1988, Ako (Kirik) vows to flee Iraq. His wife Selma (Bilgin) refuses to countenance such a thought as long as her sick, aged father is alive and dependent on them. There is no way to resolve the issue and soon Ako is drafted and sent to the frontline of the Iran-Iraq War. We see the extent of the hatred reserved for the Kurds in the treatment of Ako’s friend Sami (Qeladizeyi) who is continually beaten, humiliated and made to feel less than human.

Ako becomes a desperate man and even lies in the trenches with his leg in the air hoping it might be shot or blown off. It would be a small sacrifice to pay if it meant he would be sent back to his wife and son and left alone. Then, he is assigned to accompany a martyr’s corpse to his family. It could be his only way of getting home except the driver (Ekrem) is an Arab who hates Kurds and the journey is fraught with tension, hostility and bitter irony.

Maturing into a road movie set against the barren landscapes of Iraq, Kilometre Zero is at its most impressive on a purely visual level. It is beautifully composed by cinematographer Robert Alazraki who constantly frames characters in doorways or through windows underlining the way in which they are trapped by their circumstances. Humans are often seen against imposing mountain ranges, dwarfed by the country and its history.

Much of the wry humour is also visual, with a giant statue of Saddam Hussein criss crossing the country to show there was no escape from the dictator’s image or presence. At one point, Ako and the driver are ordered to a rest area where others cars with flag-draped coffins stretch as far as the eye can see - all glorious martyrs according to the regime. It is the absurdity observed in everyday life that captures just a hint of the more freewheeling approach that Saleem brought to the award-winning Vodka Lemon.

The dialogue tends to be less sophisticated with conversations that exist to illustrate a point rather than convey the natural exchanges of everyday life. This is particularly true of the scenes between Ako and the driver but then their whole relationship is based on volatility. Within a heartbeat they can go from shared laughter to rolling around fighting in the dirt to calmly swapping pictures of their respective children. They even acknowledge that on a personal level each finds the other to be charming and decent, but that still doesn’t detract from the fact that they are sworn enemies.

The film’s title is a reference to Saleem’s belief that Iraq has refused to move forward throughout its 80-year history and remains at the starting point of latitude zero. His film still ends on a note of hope back in the Paris of 2003 with the news that Saddam has gone and some possibility of progress or renewal might be possible.

Kilometre Zero may seem a little worthy and heavyhanded at times but there is enough human interest in the characters and their journey to provide an emotional connection for the arthouse viewer.

Salles, Walter


FOREIGN LAND                                          A                     95

Brazil  Portugal  (100 mi)  1995  co-director:  Daniela Thomas


A stylized black and white perfection, with brilliant art direction credited to Daniela Thomas, a theater and opera director, set in Brazil in March 1990, after 30 years of a military dictatorship, the newly elected President decides to freeze all bank accounts with more than $300, causing nearly a million Brazilians to flee the country in search of opportunities in “foreign lands.” 


This story features a 21-year old in Brazil who follows his mother’s dying wish to return to her birthplace in Spain, but becomes a courier for a gangster disguised as an antique dealer and runs into some deadly trouble.  He meets in Lisbon, Portugal, a girl whose boy friend was just murdered by the same gang.  Both end up on the run, finding themselves in a permanent state of exile, meeting other exiles from Africa, where personal and political troubles haunt their every move.  Eventually, they become lovers, making love on a beach where they are dwarfed by a huge ship grounded just offshore, poetically suggesting shipwrecked souls running aground, only to meet the nefarious gangsters waiting for them at the Spanish border.  There is some excellent writing, but the film lacks a center, a human heart, as all are mysteriously escaping from their own hearts.  Beautiful Spanish music underscores the powerful visuals, perhaps a companion piece to Wong Kar-wei’s HAPPY TOGETHER.  



Brazil  France  Spain  Japan  (106 mi)  1998




Against her nature, Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), an intelligent but nihilistic old bag—a retired schoolteacher who writes letters for illiterate people and then never mails them—leaves Rio de Janeiro with a little boy in tow and takes to the road. The boy's mother has been killed, and his desire to see his missing father stirs something in Dora. The two of them are practically hoboes, but once they leave Rio life opens up for them. This shrewd, tough, and bighearted Brazilian movie, directed by Walter Salles, moves surely and convincingly from utter negation to something like guarded optimism. A great star in Brazil, Montenegro rivals such legendary actresses as Jeanne Moreau and Giulietta Masina in her ability to alter her moods from mask-of-tragedy woe to childish pleasure without apparent calculation. With handsome Vinicius de Oliveira as the boy and Marília Pêra as Dora's friendly neighbor. In Portuguese.  David Denby


Nina Caplan from Sight and Sound:

Dora is a letter writer in Brazil's Central Station. She transcribes the loves and longings for Rio de Janeiro's illiterates and sends the results - or not - as she and her neighbour Irene see fit. When one of her clients is run over and killed, nine-year-old Josué is left motherless. Dora takes him in and sells him, but later steals him back. Dora and Josué go in search of his father Jisus, using the address of the letter Dora had written but failed to send for Josué's mother.

Dora tries to leave Josué on the bus but he follows her, forgetting his rucksack which contains Dora's money. Penniless, they are picked up by a kindly, religious truck driver who abandons them when Dora grows too friendly. By hitching they reach Jisus' house but he has sold it to buy alcohol. In the town, Josué saves them from destitution by suggesting Dora write letters for pilgrims. This time, she posts the letters.

By chance, they find Josué's two half-brothers. Their father has disappeared, but Dora reads the letter he had sent six months ago: he had gone to Rio in search of Josué's mother and the son he has never seen. The brothers realise he too must be dead. The next morning, while Josué sleeps, Dora takes the bus for Rio. Josué wakes up too late to prevent her departure. Both are left with a photo by which to remember one another.


The trouble with road movies is they often go nowhere. Walter Salles' Central Station makes a virtue out of a common failing. It's a time-honoured scenario: haphazard travelling companions take a trip down Self-Discovery Highway, destination Understanding. For nine-year-old Josué, the search for his father marks his coming of age. His companion Dora, a retired teacher, rediscovers her humanity when she leaves her post writing letters for Rio's illiterates in Central Station to help him.

Salles (Foreign Land) takes recent upheavals in Brazil as his starting point and tackles individual quests within the context of the pain, loss and redemption of the whole community. Josué spends most of the film trying to join a community which is a metonym for the Brazilian society Dora abandoned along with her teaching career. As a letter writer, she interprets rather than instructs: if knowledge is her currency, she has exchanged generosity for avarice. She and Josué approach one another from opposite ends of the social spectrum: he seeks a place, she has abandoned hers. These two disparate but coinciding quests for rehabilitation are the film's heartbeat.

With his brothers, Josué will find a trade and a place in society. It is at his instigation that his mother Ana writes - via Dora - to her abusive drunken husband Jisus, tentatively pleading for reconciliation while the boy plays with a wooden top, symbol of his soon-to-be-lost childhood realm. He will lose top and mother simultaneously. His search for male role models will place him behind the wheel on a paternal truck driver's lap when he and Dora hitch a lift. Later, he will strike a similar pose with his older brother Moisés in front of the latter's lathe: the man behind, guiding the boy's hands. Under Moisés' guidance, Josué makes a top, no longer just a toy but a symbolic token of initiation into the community. This process begun, Dora leaves, having rediscovered the selflessness of the teacher/guide.

Like the trains, Central Station starts from the eponymous station and radiates outwards. People and trains move past with equal smoothness, making their random trajectories through the umber light that permeates the film. Characters collide with one another with seeming incoherence, like the letters which Dora posts, keeps or destroys according to her whim. Life is not linear. Dora tells Josué that one should always take buses because they have regular routes and preordained stops. She associates taxis with instability; her father's unfaithfulness; her mother's death. Dora's world contains its own insecurity: a perpetual liar whose lies are never believed, she imputes her own untruthfulness to others. "How do they measure a kilometre?" asks Josué during their journey. "They make it up," replies Dora.

Vinícius de Oliveira is extraordinary as the proud, vulnerable Josué, chin raised as the tears fall, dictating Dora's clothes and make-up and initiating macho sex talk as he tries to seem grown up. Like a teacher brushing up on a rusty foreign language, Dora relearns her moral grammar for his benefit and posts the letters she used to jettison. The film takes religion as its point of stability, replicating the developing country's conflict between industrialisation and tradition. The two travellers bounce from evangelist truck drivers to places of pilgrimage. In a stunning visual depiction of faith, the screen fills with points of light from pilgrims' candles. The family unit, seen as irrevocably lost, is idolised: Dora becomes a virgin mother to Josué, while his brothers create a shrine commemorating Ana and Jisus. When Dora leaves, the image which remains to comfort her and Josué for their mutual loss is a photo of them taken with a picture of a saint, a parody of the nuclear family, suggesting the duplication which replaces intimacy in a fragmented society. Salles takes this one step further: the result, a random microcosm of Brazilian life both intimate and eloquent, is Central Station.


Brazil  Switzerland  France (92 mi)  2001


Leslie Felperin for Sight and Sound:


THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES                 B                     84

Brazil  (130 mi)  2004


An idealized and romanticized vision taken from the diary entries, most seemingly written to his mother, of the continental travels from the still impressionable youth of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, now an icon of revolutionary fervor turned into a capitalistic dream in the form of T-shirts, posters, red-starred emblems, and now this film.  Back in 1952 when he was only 23, he and his lifelong friend, Alberto Granado (whose memoirs “Traveling with Che Guevara” were also used), embarked on an 8000-mile journey across South America.  Eric Gautier’s cinematography stands out, especially blending actual locations from Argentina, Chile, and Peru with striking black and white portraits of the working class poor, also the haunting music of Gustavo Santaololla, including some memorable dance sequences to the likes of Prez Prado.  Latino superstar Gael Garcia Bernal takes a stab using a young man’s natural curiosity as the key to his personal growth, a child of privilege, with a girl friend so rich that it looks like she lives in a Swiss chateau, studying medicine, yet identifying with the underclass, with an eye for injustice wherever he sees it.  It’s tired and predictable, something right out of the social tiered milieu of TITANIC, but what I found unusual was their final destination – a leper colony in the Amazon, where the sick lived in huts on one side of the river while the doctors and nuns lived in comfort on the other.  Now where, but in the movies, would this be any young man’s final trip destination?  Despite the predictable set ups and the all too obvious contrasts of rich and poor, the upper class wealth and status of Guevara’s family origins against the poor and indigenous people they encountered, particularly the picturesque grandeur of the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu against the current overpopulated squalor of Lima, Peru, the film does a good job of humanizing these young men with the natural landscapes and people they encounter.  Where else are you going to see a soccer match in a leper colony? 


Motorcycle Diaries  Gerald Peary

Those who remember Ernesto "Che" Guevera, killed in 1967 by rightists aided by the CIA, as a fierce, uncompromised. Marxist revolutionary will be mortified by The Motorcycle Diaries. This lollipop-land retelling of the early days of Fidel Castro’s compatriot shows Guevera as a shy Argentine med student who, on a post-college 1952 road trip with a biochemist buddy, "learns" the obvious: that it’s a rotten world out there, and that poor people are neglected. It’s the social conscience of a Peace Corps volunteer, not of a far-left militant who, in Cuba, would bring down Batista’s government.

But that’s the ploy of Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles (Central Station): a depoliticized, picturesque movie which can attract a middle-class audience that would be scared off by something truly radical. So "Che" is played sweetly by Mexico’s arthouse pinup, Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien); and the places about South America traversed by Guevera and Alberto Grenado (Rodrigo de la Serna) become a topographic diversion. Such beauty! And The People? They remain the primitive Other, Indians without voice waiting for liberation from our white-guy movie heroes. Believe young "Che" swimming a river to be with his leper-colony friends? Then you’ve been smitten by this bogus-to-the-core movie.

Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack:

Essentially a soft, mostly unfunny buddy comedy that takes a solemn, laboredly humanist turn in the final act. Even setting aside the political difficulties with the depiction of young, pre-revolutionary Che Guevara (the promise of youth, idealism unsullied, etc.), the main problem is that Salles simply isn't a very good filmmaker. His pacing is awkward. His ability to successfully articulate humor and seriousness is virtually nil. His images are curiously bland and flat; even his overly-praised landscapes frequently lack pictorial power. His editor shows no skill for the task, chopping scenes into fragments for no discernable purpose. And Salles' use of music is unfailingly obvious, serving as a kind of Luaka Bop CD sampler buoying the proceedings for a presumed middle-class viewership. In terms of characterization, Guevara spends most of the film toggling back and forth between a handsome schemer and part-time cad, on the one hand, and a deeply concerned doctor-without-borders on the other. The shifts are sudden and motivated only by the film's need to make its point in boldface, about the Awakening of a Revolutionary. As far as trying to place The Motorcycle Diaries in a larger cultural framework, one can only ask, why now? What purpose is served by embodying Latin American radicalism (a force that is still very much alive) in the singular person of a dead 60s icon? This isn't to say that Che Guevara has nothing to teach us in the present day, but a radical aesthetic approach (such as the one Spike Lee adopted for Malcolm X) would be necessary to demonstrate how the past survives into the present. Salles, needless to say, is not the man for the job.


Peter Brunette from:

Because of its blatant populist appeal and very soft-core leftist politics, many critics and ordinary viewers will be automatically wild about Walter Salles' "The Motorcycle Diaries," but they will be wrong. This film that explores a real-life motorcycle trip taken by the 24-year-old Che Guevara and a friend around South America in the early 1950s hits all the right notes, but for this critic, at least, the piano's badly in need of tuning. Salles, the director of the much-loved but even more manipulative "Central Station" a number of years back, is up to his old tricks once again, but the more recent film, even on a basic formal and dramatic level -- and despite all the praise it got at its Sundance premiere in January -- is simply not very interesting.

When Che Guevara is played by Gael Garcia Bernal, the Mexican heartthrob who also stars in Pedro Almodovar's competition film, "Bad Education," of course you want to like the film. And the idea of two young men, setting out to explore life and their continent -- like another young man around the same time in North America, Jack Kerouac -- is an instantly sympathetic one. But the things that actually happen to them -- road accidents, picking up girls, going to parties, running out of money, all liberally sprinkled with gorgeous shots of the magnificent countryside -- couldn't be more pedestrian. In fact, most of the events that occur would be completely uninvolving if you didn't know that they were happening to Che Guevara. So the viewer finds him- or herself basically waiting for this solidly upper-middle-class, spoiled kid from Buenos Aires, this doctor-in-training, to finally encounter the People and start becoming the Che Guevara that, depending on our politics, we love or hate.

About halfway through the film, after what has in effect been little more than a long travelogue, Che and his friend Alberto, who incarnates the standard, lovable Sancho Panza sidekick figure (played by Rodrigo de la Serna), finally discover the landless, exploited Indians and begin to develop a social conscience. Nowhere is this sentiment really explored in depth, however, and Salles doesn't even go near any political analysis of the causes of the unjust economic system that prevails in Latin America. Instead, we learn by the end of the film that there is "injustice," as though it were a fact of nature, which has the wonderful effect of completely isolating viewers from any blame. Salles' appeal is solely to the mushy, bleeding-heart, limousine-liberal kind of folks that the right takes so much delight in ridiculing.

The last part of the picture shows Che and Alberto working in a leper colony, once again demonstrating their closeness to the People (whom Salles evokes with black-and-white images distributed frequently throughout the film, especially in its coda). There is an immense party thrown for them when they leave (which Salles, Spielberg-like, milks for all it's worth emotionally) but it all ends up seeming kind of phony when you realize they've only been there for three weeks. Salles also focuses on a death-defying stunt Che pulled, swimming across the Amazon at night in order to show his solidarity with the poor, with the purpose of adding as much drama to this pretty limp plot as possible, but it all seems totally artificial even if it did happen. Here at the end, Salles is so eager to manipulate (like Spielberg at the end of "Schindler's List") that he basically shows us three different farewell scenes in a row. And just in case someone in the audience didn't know that this was, in fact, all about THE Che Guevara, Salles spells out the future, letter by letter, in condescending titles.

The ultra-rich, politically liberal Salles' heart was undoubtedly in the right place when he made this movie, but virtually every aspect of it is aimed at evoking the most unthinking baseline of emotional responses. There's no depth anywhere, no examination of the conflicts that any upper-class kid must feel about fighting for justice vs. selfishly living the good life, no demonstration that, of course, poor people aren't necessarily more noble or better people just because they're poor. Nothing of any substance whatsoever. All we get here is the most facile yanking of the heartstrings of liberals everywhere, and at this point in the history of this increasingly dangerous world, this is no longer enough.

by Richard Porton    A Failure of Nerve, also reviewing THE EDUKATORS from Cinema Scope (excerpt)

In recent years, that chronically amorphous entity known as “political cinema” has become synonymous, at least in North America, with high-minded (or, in the case of Michael Moore, low-minded) documentaries. Many such films are laudable, but the recent re-release of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965) recalls that a radical narrative political cinema, with no concessions to either liberal pabulum or crude agit-prop, was once possible. The tough-mindedness of Pontecorvo’s masterpiece—a nuanced anti-colonialist film that nevertheless avoids sentimentalizing Algerian terrorism—is conspicuously absent in present-day narrative political cinema. In an era where utopian hopes have been discarded, allegory seems to have much more potency than social realism. For that reason, it’s arguable that recent fiction films not acknowledged by most critics as particularly political at all—e.g., The Saddest Music in the World—are much more politically trenchant than, say, Costa-Gavras’ Amen (2002).

Two vapid—but crowd-pleasing—Cannes Competition selections unwittingly demonstrate how the intellectual and aesthetic impoverishment of much contemporary political cinema can be traced to a fatal failure of nerve. Hans Weingartner’s The Edukators and Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries are distinctly different in tone and style. In the guise of a gentle lampoon of the follies of young German radicals, Weingartner falls back on complacent clichés that dismiss any sort of political commitment. Salles’ sober road movie pays humourless homage to Ernesto “Che” Guevara with a painstaking, and painfully dull, chronicle of Che and his friend Alberto Granado’s youthful trek across Latin America. Yet both films pander to the prejudices of middle-class, nominally liberal audiences. Just as many leftists prefer the novels of Céline (an unrepentant fascist) to the bland pieties spouted by so-called “liberals,” I’d rather be provoked by an intelligent right-wing cineaste instead of being bored by “feelgood” liberal cinema...

...If The Edukators is disconcertingly snarky, the Robert Redford-produced The Motorcycle Diaries proves cloyingly earnest. No radical icon of the 20th century is as much in need of demystification as Che Guevara. Yet going beyond the mainstream left’s uncritical veneration (and the right’s demonization) of Guevara is a surprisingly daunting task. Even Leandro Katz’s admirable documentary dissecting the famous final photograph of the martyred Guevara, The Day You’ll Love Me (1997), ultimately reinforces the Che myth. The last shot of Kurosawa’s Bright Future (2002), reveals, however inadvertently, the quasi-theological nature of the Che cult: glassy-eyed teenagers in “Che” T-shirts saunter down the street, emblems of anomie who surely haven’t read a word written by their idol.

Far more lyrical and incisive than the turgid Marxist-Leninist prose churned out by Guevara after becoming a professional revolutionary, the travel diaries, which honestly reflect the nascent political consciousness of a young Argentine medical student, could certainly have been the basis for a compelling film. Salles, however, merely replaces the cliché of the macho anti-imperialist warrior with an equally one-dimensional image of a sensitive, James Dean-like picaro. Eric Gautier’s restrained cinematography, with its frequently hand-held evocations of the rough-hewn landscape, nicely complements Gael Garcia Bernal’s blessedly low-key performance as Che. On the most literal level, the film remains remarkably faithful to the details of Guevara and Granado’s wanderings through Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela, even though their visit to Machu Picchu takes on the flavour of a woozy travelogue. Yet, at almost every juncture, Salles’ adaptation either embellishes the source material with suspect melodramatic flourishes or expunges the charm of Guevara’s often wry observations.

To cite one of the most egregious examples of Salles and screenwriter José Rivera’s compulsion to “sex up” their adaptation, Guevara’s casual reference in the diaries to an evening where he swam across the Amazon becomes a full-fledged narrative crisis in the movie as the young hero barely escapes drowning. In addition, a pivotal incident involving one of Che’s acquaintances in Peru, Dr. Hugo Pesce, is oddly sentimentalized. According to Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s biography of Guevara, Pesce, the author of a book entitled Lattitudes del Silencio, became apoplectic after Che attacked this work “for describing landscapes badly and being pessimistic in his analysis of the Indians.” In the Salles version, Pesce evinces enormous gratitude for Che’s frankness—a minor discrepancy perhaps, but one that speaks to the film’s tendency to Hollywoodize the life of a man who is already a secular saint.

Salles’ preference for the youthful Guevara over the mature revolutionary may stem from the fact that, once Che and his comrades achieve power in Cuba, it becomes impossible to perform the alchemy of turning him into a Robert Redford liberal. Indeed, however much one might admire his defiance of the US and bemoan his murder in Bolivia at the hands of the CIA, Che was unquestionably an authoritarian leftist who admired the iron discipline of Lenin’s “democratic centralism” and had little patience for the Trotskyists and anarchists who were challenging Fidel from the left. Fine distinctions of this sort are rarely made in films that tackle politics and history, but as The Battle of Algiers demonstrates, films that succeed both as viable cinema and insightful history are well within the realm of possibility.


Paul Berman’s review reminding us that Guevara was a Stalinist:   

The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favored a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads. He founded Cuba's "labor camp" system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims. To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che's imagination. In the famous essay in which he issued his ringing call for "two, three, many Vietnams," he also spoke about martyrdom and managed to compose a number of chilling phrases: "Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become …"— and so on. He was killed in Bolivia in 1967, leading a guerrilla movement that had failed to enlist a single Bolivian peasant. And yet he succeeded in inspiring tens of thousands of middle class Latin-Americans to exit the universities and organize guerrilla insurgencies of their own. And these insurgencies likewise accomplished nothing, except to bring about the death of hundreds of thousands, and to set back the cause of Latin-American democracy—a tragedy on the hugest scale.

The present-day cult of Che—the T-shirts, the bars, the posters—has succeeded in obscuring this dreadful reality. And Walter Salles' movie The Motorcycle Diaries will now take its place at the heart of this cult. It has already received a standing ovation at Robert Redford's Sundance film festival (Redford is the executive producer of The Motorcycle Diaries) and glowing admiration in the press. Che was an enemy of freedom, and yet he has been erected into a symbol of freedom. He helped establish an unjust social system in Cuba and has been erected into a symbol of social justice. He stood for the ancient rigidities of Latin-American thought, in a Marxist-Leninist version, and he has been celebrated as a free-thinker and a rebel. And thus it is in Salles' Motorcycle Diaries.

The film follows the young Che and his friend Alberto Granado on a vagabond tour of South America in 1951-52—which Che described in a book published under the title Motorcycle Diaries, and Granado in a book of his own. Che was a medical student in those days, and Granado a biochemist, and in real life, as in the movie, the two men spent a few weeks toiling as volunteers in a Peruvian leper colony. These weeks at the leper colony constitute the dramatic core of the movie. The colony is tyrannized by nuns, who maintain a cruel social hierarchy between the staff and the patients. The nuns refuse to feed people who fail to attend mass. Young Che, in his insistent honesty, rebels against these strictures, and his rebellion is bracing to witness. You think you are observing a noble protest against the oppressive customs and authoritarian habits of an obscurantist Catholic Church at its most reactionary. 

Yet the entire movie, in its concept and tone, exudes a Christological cult of martyrdom, a cult of adoration for the spiritually superior person who is veering toward death—precisely the kind of adoration that Latin America's Catholic Church promoted for several centuries, with miserable consequences. The rebellion against reactionary Catholicism in this movie is itself an expression of reactionary Catholicism. The traditional churches of Latin America are full of statues of gruesome bleeding saints. And the masochistic allure of those statues is precisely what you see in the movie's many depictions of young Che coughing out his lungs from asthma and testing himself by swimming in cold water—all of which is rendered beautiful and alluring by a sensual backdrop of grays and browns and greens, and the lovely gaunt cheeks of one actor after another, and the violent Andean landscapes.

The movie in its story line sticks fairly close to Che's diaries, with a few additions from other sources. The diaries tend to be haphazard and nonideological except for a very few passages. Che had not yet become an ideologue when he went on this trip. He reflected on the layered history of Latin America, and he expressed attitudes that managed to be pro-Indian and, at the same time, pro-conquistador. But the film is considerably more ideological, keen on expressing an "indigenist" attitude (to use the Latin-American Marxist term) of sympathy for the Indians and hostility to the conquistadors. Some Peruvian Marxist texts duly appear on the screen. I can imagine that Salles and his screenwriter, José Rivera, have been influenced more by Subcomandante Marcos and his "indigenist" rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico, than by Che.

And yet, for all the ostensible indigenism in this movie, the pathos here has very little to do with the Indian past, or even with the New World. The pathos is Spanish, in the most archaic fashion—a pathos that combines the Catholic martyrdom of the Christlike scenes with the on-the-road spirit not of Jack Kerouac (as some people may imagine) but of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, a tried-and-true formula in Spanish culture. (See Benito Pérez Galdós' classic 19th-century novel Nazarín.) If you were to compare Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries, with its pious tone, to the irrevent, humorous, ironic, libertarian films of Pedro Almodóvar, you could easily imagine that Salles' film comes from the long-ago past, perhaps from the dark reactionary times of Franco—and Almodóvar's movies come from the modern age that has rebelled against Franco.

The modern-day cult of Che blinds us not just to the past but also to the present. Right now a tremendous social struggle is taking place in Cuba. Dissident liberals have demanded fundamental human rights, and the dictatorship has rounded up all but one or two of the dissident leaders and sentenced them to many years in prison. Among those imprisoned leaders is an important Cuban poet and journalist, Raúl Rivero, who is serving a 20-year sentence. In the last couple of years the dissident movement has sprung up in yet another form in Cuba, as a campaign to establish independent libraries, free of state control; and state repression has fallen on this campaign, too.

These Cuban events have attracted the attention of a number of intellectuals and liberals around the world. Václav Havel has organized a campaign of solidarity with the Cuban dissidents and, together with Elena Bonner and other heroic liberals from the old Soviet bloc, has rushed to support the Cuban librarians. A group of American librarians has extended its solidarity to its Cuban colleagues, but, in order to do so, the American librarians have had to put up a fight within their own librarians' organization, where the Castro dictatorship still has a number of sympathizers. And yet none of this has aroused much attention in the United States, apart from a newspaper column or two by Nat Hentoff and perhaps a few other journalists, and an occasional letter to the editor. The statements and manifestos that Havel has signed have been published in Le Monde in Paris, and in Letras Libres magazine in Mexico, but have remained practically invisible in the United States. The days when American intellectuals rallied in any significant way to the cause of liberal dissidents in other countries, the days when Havel's statements were regarded by Americans as important calls for intellectual responsibility—those days appear to be over.

I wonder if people who stand up to cheer a hagiography of Che Guevara, as the Sundance audience did, will ever give a damn about the oppressed people of Cuba—will ever lift a finger on behalf of the Cuban liberals and dissidents. It's easy in the world of film to make a movie about Che, but who among that cheering audience is going to make a movie about Raúl Rivero?

As a protest against the ovation at Sundance, I would like to append one of Rivero's poems to my comment here. The police confiscated Rivero's books and papers at the time of his arrest, but the poet's wife, Blanca Reyes, was able to rescue the manuscript of a poem describing an earlier police raid on his home. Letras Libres published the poem in Mexico. I hope that Rivero will forgive me for my translation. I like this poem because it shows that the modern, Almodóvar-like qualities of impudence, wit, irreverence, irony, playfulness, and freedom, so badly missing from Salles' pious work of cinematic genuflection, are fully alive in Latin America, and can be found right now in a Cuban prison.

Search Order
by Raúl Rivero

What are these gentlemen looking for
in my house?

What is this officer doing
reading the sheet of paper
on which I've written
the words "ambition," "lightness," and "brittle"?

What hint of conspiracy
speaks to him from the photo without a dedication
of my father in a guayabera (black tie)
in the fields of the National Capitol?

How does he interpret my certificates of divorce?

Where will his techniques of harassment lead him
when he reads the ten-line poems
and discovers the war wounds
of my great-grandfather?

Eight policemen
are examining the texts and drawings of my daughters,
and are infiltrating themselves into my emotional networks
and want to know where little Andrea sleeps
and what does her asthma have to do
with my carpets.

They want the code of a message from Zucu
in the upper part
of a cryptic text (here a light triumphal smile
of the comrade):
"Castles with music box. I won't let the boy
hang out with the boogeyman. Jennie."

A specialist in aporia came,
a literary critic with the rank of interim corporal
who examined at the point of a gun
the hills of poetry books.

Eight policemen
in my house
with a search order,
a clean operation,
a full victory
for the vanguard of the proletariat
who confiscated my Consul typewriter,
one hundred forty-two blank pages
and a sad and personal heap of papers
—the most perishable of the perishable
from this summer. 


Brazil  France  (108 mi)  2008

Anthony Kaufman  at Cannes from indieWIRE

Just as Jia's characters are trapped in a life-long cycle to make a buck, so, too, are the protagonists of Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas' "Linha de Passe," an accomplished, though unremarkable competition film that never rises above its familiar tale of a poverty-stricken family. Concerning a single mother, raising her four children, from an 18-year-old aspiring soccer player already past his prime to the youngest, a dark-skinned boy in search of his father among Sao Paolo's bus drivers, the film skillfully interweaves its multiple storylines. Smartly, Salles and Thomas avoid any melodramatic excesses, leaving the drama to play out in more subtle ways.

Linha De Passe  Jonathan Romney at Cannes from Screendaily

Solid and involving, if hardly ground-breaking, Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas's Linha de Passe is a complex and gritty drama about a working-class family's struggles in the streets and on the football fields of soccer-crazy Sao Paolo. Reunited with his co-director on 1996's Foreign Land, Salles offers a well-knit multi-strander that vividly evokes the rigours of keeping body and soul together in Brazil's biggest city, while offering a down-to-earth alternative to the more romantic and stylistically flashy films (City of God, Lower City, Berlin winner Elite Squad) with which Brazilian cinema has been identified lately.

Very much in the mode of Salles' 1998 breakthrough Central Station, Linha de Passe offers a compelling cast and a narrative fail-safe - the travails of a tough mum and her unruly brood - that should give it modest but significant international appeal.

Set over four months, the story follows the family of Cleuza (Corveloni), a middle-aged single mother with four sons already and one more on the way. Three of the boys are on the verge of adulthood. Dario (de Oliveira, from Central Station) is a talented footballer yearning for his big break, but held back by the fact that at 18, he's already too old to be considered a fresh new talent. Denis (Baldasserini) is a cheerful womaniser with a girlfriend and baby son on the

side, who plies a perilous trade as motorbike messenger. And Dinho (Rodrigues), a fervent Pentecostal Christian, keeps his head down working at a gas station. Odd son out is the younger Reginaldo (Santos), a mixed-race boy who's become obsessed with the father he's never known, a black bus driver.

The narrative takes us inexorably towards the four sons' moments of truth, some more plausible than others. The son who has the most explosive crisis is the one we least expect it of - which itself makes for a kind of inverted predictability. Salles, Thomas and their co-writers skilfully juggle the various narrative balls, although the pace eventually slackens and we find

ourselves impatient for the climax of each strand. In this sense, Gustavo Santaolalla's moody score somewhat works against the film, overstating from the start a sense of tragic inevitability. It should be said that, though, that tough as things get, the film's open ending feels humanistic and merciful towards its characters, rather than suggesting a cop-out.

Without overstating the grimness of Brazilian working-class life, the film evokes a hardscrabble existence in which opportunities are precarious and must be paid for: Dario eventually gets his shot at the big time, but palms have to be greased. The sheer hustle of Sao Paolo comes across vitally in the traffic scenes, with Denis risking his neck - and eventually others' - on the city highways. Brazil 's polarity between rich and poor is subtly handled in the scenes set in the household where Cleuza works as a maid.

Above all, the film comes across as a film about religion - that is, Brazil 's true religion of football. Salles and Thomas use on-field action to urgent effect, notably in the opening scenes, where Cleuza roots for her team. The film's title refers to a football pitch marking - alluding, no doubt, to the lines that everyone in the story has to observe or cross.

Mauro Pinheiro's photography brings out the everyday grittiness of a grey working city. A strong cast emotes and agonises discreetly, the actors playing the older sons giving their roles various winning shades of callow desperation. But it's Santos, looking somewhat younger than his 15 years, who steals the show with his spiky exuberance, even managing to carry off Reginaldo's final moment of glory.

Salvatores, Gabriele


I’M NOT SCARED                                       B+                   92

Italy  (111 mi)  2002


An excruciatingly beautiful to look at sin and redemption film wrapped in the pastoral beauty of a rural horror thriller, looking very much like a wide-screen companion piece to Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN, largely due to the superb photography of Italo Petriccione who captures the surface as well as another world lurking just underneath.  This film is based on a novel by Niccolo Ammaniti and features vast wheatfields, with birds constantly fluttering in and out of the screen, screeching or soaring above, sometimes menacingly, sometimes beautifully, creating an enticing world where sights and sounds are harmoniously matched by the music of Ezio Bosso and Pepo Scherman, sounding very much like violin variations of Pachelbel’s “Canon” and the otherworldly music of Arvo Part.  The story is about kids and is seen through the eyes and the imaginations of kids, who play innocently enough with one another in the summer-lit wheatfields, finding an abandoned house, daring one another to do dangerous things.  One ten-year old child, Michele, played by Giuseppe Cristiano, returning to the scene to fetch his younger sister’s broken glasses, which he lost, discovers someone hidden in a covered hole who could be living or dead, and runs from the scene.   As the days pass, he returns again and again to the scene of the crime, alternatingly horrified and curious, ultimately discovering another boy his own age who is chained and left alone, yet given just enough food to be kept alive.  In Michele’s mind, he weaves an imaginary story to match what he sees.  Alternately, the imprisoned boy does the same, thinking of Michele as his Guardian Angel.  At home, Michele overhears his parents, who with several other village adults have a disturbing interest with a television report of a child kidnapping for ransom.  As none of this makes sense to Michele, who feels an allegiance to his parents, yet the universe of the boy’s fate becomes dangerously wrapped around Michele’s shoulders.  What follows may be predictable enough, yet it evolves beautifully, simultaneously blending the worlds of the children and the adults into one.  One is emotionally pulled into Michele’s world, and while simplistic, this is captivating throughout.  




FORGET BAGHDAD                                  B+                   90

Germany  Switzerland  (111 mi)  2002


An extremely complex subject, to become the enemy of your own memories, presented to the audience like a college lecture, filled with facts and analysis where it’s hard to keep up with all the information.  The son of Iraqi Jewish Communists who fled Iraq in the early 1950’s, Swiss-born filmmaker Samir sets out to discover the men who knew his father in an attempt to reconnect with his roots.  Basically, the film examines how some Jews historically do not believe in Zionism, how there is a fractured Jewish state divided between Western European Jews, the Ashkenazi, who have an exclusive claim to the Holocaust, and the Middle Eastern Jews from Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, who were run out of their countries in the early 1950’s by forces which may have included violent acts initiated by the ultra-right Zionist secret service agents in Israel in collaboration with Arabic governments, acts initiated to drive the Eastern, “Oriental” Jews called Mizrahim to the new Jewish homeland in Israel.  For instance in Iraq, where there were 140,000 Jews, none were interested in relocating to Israel until after bombings and arrests gave them no other choice.  Within a year, 120,000 requested asylum in Israel, turning professional, well-educated, Iraqi middle class merchants into Israeli refugees living in tents, totally at the mercy of this new country that demanded every new citizen contribute in some way to the betterment of the whole, so all were given menial tasks.  Based on the pre-existing prejudice against Arab Jews, they were fumigated upon entry, actually sprayed with DDT before being sent to a kibbutz where they would learn farming techniques.  The film follows the story of 4 men who were Iraqi communists in the 1940’s, all joining the left-leaning communists as that was the organization fighting the Nazi’s, none who knew the director’s father, all now relocated in Israel, all with Arabic roots, and all some 50 years later still feeling as if they are in a state of permanent exile.  Also, the film includes a prominent Israeli film scholar with Arabic family roots now living in New York, who was the first to go live on Israeli television to suggest there was a prejudicial rift within the Israeli state between the Ashkenazi and Mizrahim Jews.  Archival footage, including old Egyptian films, are mixed with current interviews and the director’s narration to provide a composite view of how the Arabic aspect of these Jews has been eradicated in their assimilation to the land of Israel.  But roots are hard to eradicate, they don’t erase easily, memories keep popping up from time to time, and perhaps those memories, the film suggests, as non-politicized as they are, can be the key to unraveling a human solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so long as they are not forgotten.   


Sandrich, Mark

USA  (109 mi)  1937


Women in Hollywood musicals  Pulling the Plug on Lina Lamont, by Martin Roth from Jump Cut, April 1990

Sanjinés, Jorge
BLOOD OF THE CONDOR (Yawar mallku)

Bolivia  (85 mi)  1969

User comments  from imdb Author: S.M. Flatten from Culver City, California, USA

The editing and cinematography are of renegade or guerilla filmmaking. The film has almost no production value of any kind. Blood of the Condor is amazingly artistic and complements the paranoia of the plot. This film is must see for every film student and amateur filmmaker!

Time Out review


About a conflict between the Peace Corps and a local tribe in Bolivia , used to dramatise the racism latent in 'Western Aid' programmes. The Peace Corps were discovered to be practising sterilisation on Indian women without their knowledge. Sanjines' film explores the implications of this policy.


Occam's Projector [Czaro Woj]

In the Bolivian mountains, a man, his wife. Their children: dead. Life according to tradition. One day, police arrest the man, shoot him in cold blood—injured, alive. His wife takes him down, into the city, to his brother. City? Machines, velocity, "modernity", racism—godlessness. The doctor in the city hospital says (in Spanish), "You need blood, you need money to buy blood." They don't have money; will they find it, earn it? Interesting structure, parallel flashback: Peace Corps arrives in the mountain village, bringing clothes, medicine. It's a front. In reality: a forced, covert sterilization program. The man finds out, swarms and attacks the modern-looking building with fellow villagers. They catch the Westerners (in English) listening to psychedelia. Freak-out ensues, frightened Westerner in close-up: "They seem to know everything!" In the present, the man dies, no money for blood. His brother and wife return to the village. Last shot: villagers raising their rifles in protest—freeze frame. Film rendered in striking compositions, jagged editing, little money. Political, impressive. Original title: Yawar mallku.

The Clandestine Nation: indigenism and national subjects of Bolivia in the films of Jorge Sanjinés  Leonardo Garcia-Pabón from Jump Cut, Fall 2001

Santana, Antoine


A SONG OF INNOCENCE                         B+                   91

France  (90 mi)  2005


Despite the overt similarities to Marco Bellocchio’s film THE NANNY (1999), including many scenes that look exactly alike, the director takes sole authorship of his film, though in truth, it does have a more subversive ending.  A dark and ultra grim mood prevails throughout this stylish class conscious chamber drama set in 1877 that resembles the look of a gothic horror thriller, where underneath the decorative veneer lies the exaggerated style of a vampire story, except very little actually happens except the introduction of severe rules meant to keep the servants in their place, boredom and the passing of time.  Opening with a black and white painterly photograph of a pregnant woman standing beside a bare tree under a full moon, we then see a woman dragged off in a horse-driven carriage in the dead of night with a cloak over her head, rushed up the stairs of a run down mansion by candlelight, delivered to the room where a baby cries.  Enter the wet nurse, Islid Le Besco, wearing a blank expression on her face and very worn peasant clothes.  She has been hired to care for the infant daughter of the lord and lady of the manor, the cold and dour Grégoire Colin, who has a fetish for control, status, and reinforcing his authority over the servants, and his attractive young bride, Émilie Dequenne from ROSETTA (1999), who at age 18 is the same age as the nurse, and finds her friendship and companionship more satisfying than that of her aloof and domineering husband.

The film composition is extraordinarily precise by Angelopolos’s cinematographer, Yorgos Arvanitis, where the clothes, the manner, each shot, each room, each image is stunning in it’s period detail, yet there is something bizarre happening when Colin stands alone in a narrow hallway in the dark of the night, perhaps looking in on one of the ladies, and the walls start to close in on him, like a shot out of REPULSION (1965), where his repressed anxiety seems to make the walls move, almost like an expressionist image.  Later, the nurse herself has visions of herself as Cinderella, freeing herself from this dreary, slavish existence and dressing up for the ball.  While the nurse is overly affectionate to the baby, there is a dark underside to her queer nature, which is observed and commented on by the other servants, as if she is somehow possessing the baby, as a vampire possesses one of its victims, or she’ll occasionally read the baby a scary story and let her cry. 


There are many painterly images, and a deliberate, established pace that gives us insight into the household rhythms and personalities.  One unforgettable image is a flashback to the night when the lord of the manor and his doctor visit a home of nursing mothers, seeking the services of one of them.  Most are unclad from the waist up, their breasts exposed, perhaps twenty, thirty women presenting themselves in this manner, all lined up, as if the men are at a bordello choosing which woman he desires.  They even taste the breast milk before choosing the right nurse.  We learn she was forced to give up her son to take this position, and she tells the lady of the manor that she dreams of the day she and her son, as well as the lord’s child, will run away together and rise up in revolutionary rebellion against the master class.  The lady of the manor is revolted at what she hears, realizing she’s talking about her baby, thinking these must be delusions of grandeur.  This causes such concern that they consider relieving her of her duties, but decide instead to wean the child from the wet nurse for two months, as they have also heard the nurse’s son has died, and vow not to tell her, as they wish nothing to disturb the relationship between the mother, the nurse, and the baby, who are even on a strict diet to ensure healthy milk production.  On the night before she leaves, the nurse is told the full circumstances of her child, as the dramatic music of Mahler’s 1st Symphony kicks in, a slowly developing children’s round that has such sinister implications, as in the darkness of the night all sorts of dire possibilities float through our heads in a cinematic psychological study of a woman in distress.  The ending is, quite simply, stunning, and raised a smile to my face, as much of the small details of the film collectively form a personal portrait, which in an instant, like THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, changes before our eyes. 


Santiago, Cirio H.



Philippines  USA  (77 mi)  1981

from imdb Author: mcslime from schenectady, new york, usa:

This movie was probably singularly responsible for my interest in B-grade martial arts movies. I saw it when I was very young (before cable - eeeeek!) on late-night "Kung-fu Theater". The local station had obviously made a mistake and aired the movie uncut - violence, nudity, and all! The epic final fight scene finds the heroine steadily losing pieces of her clothing one item at a time until she finishes the battle wearing nothing but her panties. The sight of her fighting in such a condition forever made me a fan of the genre! See it if you have a chance.

Firecracker  Contest and contradiction, by Gina Marchetti from Jump Cut


Sapir, Esteban


THE AERIAL                                                            B-                    80

Argentina  (90 mi)  2007


Imagination has saved men.


Opening in a film within a film, like The Shrinking Lover section of Almodovar’s TALK TO ME, I kept expecting the actual film to materialize, but it never did, remaining in this format throughout, a black and white silent film where all the town’s inhabitants (except inexplicably one family) remain voiceless, where a megalomaniac known as Mr. TV owns all the jobs, all the food, and all the media outlets which have stolen their voices.  It’s a Guy Maddin-like creation without his humorous flair for melodrama or quirky wit, a film that can be overwhelming at times with the grandiose look of the METROPOLIS style set designs pitting the powerful against the meek, an obvious reference to the political suppression of free speech that has wreeked havoc with Argentina’s political past, such as their notorious disappearing persons or the oppressive military force that initiated a campaign against its own citizens in their Dirty War from the 70’s and 80’s.  In a town where it’s always snowing (a reference to Guy Maddin’s CAREFUL?), Mr. TV is a Dick Tracy-like villain characterized by his giant limo where the obnoxious car alarm goes off all the time and his henchman, shown with a deformed face and a rat’s tail, has to kick the tires to make it stop.  Another henchman working for Mr. TV wears a space helmet over his head with the Soviet Union label “CCCP” across the top.  The Voice is an exquisitely beautiful Latin singer who performs sensuous tangos on TV wearing a provocatively low-cut dress, but also a hood over her head that is entirely black where her face should be.  As a sign of conformity, the entire town lines up in front of every available television set to watch this show.  The melodious quality of her voice, even when speaking, is comforting.  Her son has no eyes at all, but like her, he can also speak.  However, she constantly warns him to be careful when speaking, as others may be listening who can do him harm.     


Across the street from them is a father and daughter, where the father is separated from his femme fatale wife who works under heavily fortified security for Mr TV, while he and his own father have recently been fired by Mr. TV.  The word “Fired” is stamped on their personal ID cards that they publicly wear.  However the father and son team operate a TV repair business, and when they actually fix one, the word “Repaired” is highlighted, like a blackened neon-light across the movie screen.  This plays like a running serial.  Will The Voice and her son lose their voices as well?  Will her son ever get his sight back?  Will Mr. TV succeed in his plan to steal all the town’s words as well?   Will the father and daughter ever reunite with the mother?  Will Mr. TV, the rat and the commie, ever get their comeuppance?  Stay tuned, as these questions and others may or may not get answered in this film.  The question is: will you stick around to find out?   There’s an overly dramatic orchestral musical score by Leo Sujatovich that is pulsatingly staccato, constantly jarring the nerves, where even the music suggests a continual beating down of the population.  The problem here, despite the overly obvious metaphor, is that the actors barely break a sweat.  The emphasis is on form, not the product, so the human aspect gets drowned out by the visual design.  Obviously the film was invited to a film fest for the dazzling visual inventiveness, but there’s a feeling of disconnect as well, remaining emotionally aloof and detached from the world of the audience, unfortunately growing more cartoonish and monotonous after awhile.     


sneersnipe (David Perilli)


From a narrow modern perspective one problem with many silent films which use inter-titles to display dialogue is that they can break up the pace of a film. La antena (The Aerial) stands out for the inventive approach to conveying silent film in a world that has sound. Black and white with a near continuous score, dialogue is displayed on screen when characters speak, similar to a comic: the words are a visual constituent of the world they appear within. Dialogue is given shape and form in the moments it appears in to fit with the look of the scene and the content of the dialogue. Often the words are like 60s typography (like in the magazine OZ for example) where the words are all blown up and irregular.

So, for example, two villains converse whilst being overseen by the hero of the piece. Because their words are visual and part of this world, they are obscured by the giant collars of a man's coat! As the talkers move, the hero (and us) are finally able to see what is being said but this is one of the few times where the idea that characters are conversing throughout in a written graphic medium is explicit to the way in which they interact with their world. This reaches delightful heights of whimsy when some heavies try to shoot the heroes with machine guns. Rat-tat-tat's literally stream across and fill the screen as the bullets fly. Or where a central blind character can only understand what others are saying by touching their mouths – literal lip reading (or touching)!

Set in an oppressive city inspired by the Art Deco vision of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, director Esteban Sapir creates a world where the population have been stricken of their voices with the exception of a single woman. Aptly named 'The Voice' she sings dolefully on a television channel run by the ruthless Mr TV. When an inventor and his family are drawn into Mr TV's machinations a struggle to control the world's words ensues. For a film based around words, the much 'spoken' mantra 'They strip us of our voices but they can't take away our words' signposts the direction the plot is going in.

Deliberately setting out to work with the form of a film Sapir name checks all over the place in his influences. La antena clearly owes a debt to the Soviet silent film-makers, particularly Vertov, as Sapir toys so ably with the very concept of a silent film being made by a crew who can do sound. In this sense the film is analogous to more populist (and anglophone) films like Pleasantville where the colour and its absence are part of the plot. Visually the film loves using depth and keyholes to give it a distinct look. The debt to Lang and other German expressionists is also there but far less well exploited. The city has an odd composite feel, design and costume wise, which is only really escaped by the end.

As a director with a strong advertising and shorts background, Sapir seems much like an arthouse version of say Michel Gondry or David Fincher. He takes an idea which sets up a construct, and plays with it visually. La antena is reminiscent of Gondry 's and Fincher's shorts but is more ambitious in comparison to their features. The biggest similarity to La antena is probably from the work of Guy Maddin: La antena is probably the best Guy Maddin film that Maddin himself has neglected to make.

The downsides of the film are the occasional Latin American sentimentality and the occasional jokey humour at the expense of the scenario (but given the semi-self awareness of their state even this fits somehow). The worst excess is the decision to base the visual design of Mr TV's villainous scheme on the Metropolis robot-maria awakening look – but to place Voice on a swastika! Oh dear. In opposition the good guys end up sticking her son on a Cross of David. At the very least it's a poor visual gag that sticks out in a good film, at worst it's bound to be offensive to someone.

Complete with a predictable yet cleverly handled resolution, La antena throws its hat into 'a film from 2007 you must watch' barely a month into the year.


Variety   Jay Weissberg


Cherry-picking elements from a variety of genres for his cautionary fable of media control, writer-director Esteban Sapir turns "The Aerial" into a grab bag of overstatement embellished by sentiment. Based on silent film stylizations along with broad borrowings from comic book characters, pic plays like Dick Tracy meets "Metropolis" via Dziga Vertov, but the encounter is not felicitous. Undeniably lovely visuals can't sustain an overly precious story that could have made a strong impact as a short. This odd choice for the Rotterdam opener will see limited fest play before falling into the "curiosity only" category.

Best described as a part-talkie, "The Aerial" imagines a B&W world in thrall to Mr. TV (Alejandro Urdapilleta) and his ever-present broadcasts and products. During "Year X," in the "City Without a Voice," the populace has lost the ability to speak -- all except for The Voice (Florencia Raggi), a faceless mystery woman who sings on one of Mr. TV's programs.

Together with Dr. Y (Carlos Pineiro), Mr. TV concocts a devious plot to further rob the populace of all communication skills. Their plan calls for controlling The Voice, but little do they know that her son Tomas (Jonathan Sandor), though born without eyes, also has the power of speech.

When The Voice is kidnapped, Tomas is rescued by The Inventor (Rafael Ferro), who knows of an aerial where he can broadcast a plot-destroying message. Together with daughter Ana (Sol Moreno) and wife The Nurse (Julieta Cardinali), they set off, hotly pursued by Mr. TV's sidekick Mouseman (Raul Hochman).

With The Voice strapped to a giant swastika in Dr. Y's laboratory and Tomas strapped onto a giant Star of David (oy vey), it's a race against time to see whether The Inventor can save the City from total mind control.

Sapir certainly makes his message clear: Subtlety isn't his strong point. He doesn't disguise his influences either. Besides "Metropolis," scenes and themes are lifted from the Melies Brothers, "The Bride of Frankenstein" (a fairy in a snow globe), and half a dozen others.

But there's no punch, just a series of overplayed moments in which he uses the silent film form in the same postmodernist way as a Guy Maddin with Baron Munchhausen fantasies. Even the B&W lensing is toyed with, crystal clear in some scenes and then slightly pulsating in others, as if the projector bulb is struggling for energy.

There are many beautiful moments: the arresting opening, with hands poised above a typewriter as if belonging to a piano accompanist, and a shot of words folded into dough is remarkably inventive.

But Sapir spoils the cleverness with heavy-handed devices, like an overused plastic tear, or that ill-advised swastika versus Star of David coupling.

Vertov's spirit is ever-present with words directly on images rather than relegated to intertitles, but the great Soviet master would have completely rejected the cutesy sentiment.

Praise, however, goes to production designer Daniel Gimelberg's beautiful sets, inspired not only by Expressionism but 1940s noir. His constantly snowing cityscapes are lovingly shot by d.p. Cristian Cottet, and the whole transfers handsomely to 35mm (post-production must have taken up the bulk of creative time). For a change, music is properly paired with the images.

Camera (B&W, Super 16mm-to-35mm), Cristian Cottet; editor, Pablo Barbieri Carrera; music, Leo Sujatovich; production designer, Daniel Gimelberg; costume designers, Andrea Mattio, M. Cristina Astudillo; sound, Jose Luis Diaz; assistant director, Lorena Contardo; casting, Cecilia Alvarez Casado. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (Opening Night, competing), Jan. 24, 2007. Running time: 98 MIN.

LA ANTENA d: Esteban Sapir  Keith Waterfield from Alternative Film Guide

Sarandan, Susan – Actress


Film Comment  Gavin Smith interview from Film Comment


Sarno, Geraldo



Brazil  (90 mi)  1978


Brazil Film Update   Randal Johnson from Jump Cut

Documentarist Sarno's first dramatic feature (he made VIRAMUNDO in 1964) is a historical reconstruction of the life and death of Brazilian nationalist industrialist Delmiro Gouveia. Told largely from the perspectives of people associated with him rather than from that of Gouveia himself, the film begins with a cinema verite style shot of a worker/peasant saying that his boss (Gouveia) had never had anyone killed. The film ends with a similar shot, this time of a young worker from Gouveia's factory who, after his boss' death, says that workers did what Gouveia told them to, then what the English ordered, and that nobody ever asked their opinion. He says that when the workers control the means of production, nothing will impede the country's development.

Development and the paths to it are what the film is all about. Delmiro Gouveia represents a form of nationalist-bourgeois development, a form much in vogue during the populist years of Kubitschek, Quadros and Goulart. The worker in the final image offers another, more proletarian solution. It's difficult to know which solution the director favors, since the film itself is a glorification of Gouveia and his individual efforts to develop the Northeast. The films deals with his rise to economic power in the Brazilian interior through his development of a thread-making factory based on hydroelectric power derived from a darn on the Paulo Afonso Falls of the Sao Francisco River. His success undercuts the monopoly held on the Brazilian market by the British Machine Cotton Company. After refusing to negotiate or sell out to the British firm, Gouveia is assassinated. His factory is later acquired by Machine Cotton, dismantled, and thrown into the river. The film's high level of production values as well as its political questioning make CORONEL DELMIRO GOUVEIA one of the most important films of recent years. The film had its U.S. debut in the 1978 San Francisco Festival. 

Sarris, Andrew – Film critic


Sarris, Andrew   Art and Culture

Andrew Sarris served as film critic for the Village Voice for almost 30 years and as the editor of the English-language version of the influential French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, but he is best known as the primary spokesman for the "politique des auteurs" -- or auteur theory.

Prior to the emergence of this theory in France, the idea of filmmaker-as-author was applied strictly to certain European directors who considered themselves independent artists and exercised complete control over all aspects of their films. This model created the distinction between art films and popular cinema.

In France, however, the critics who wrote for Cahiers du Cinema were convinced that American cinema, and even, or especially, Hollywood cinema, was worthy of close examination. They proposed the radical idea that masterpieces were not the exclusive domain of a cultural elite of directors, and that cinematic authors previously dismissed as merely commercial had in fact made significant personal statements in their work. The assertion that the auteur’s distinctive style is only revealed through a thorough examination of his whole body of work caused a shift in critical perception and a re-evaluation of directors on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sarris created an enormous furor when he introduced this theory in his Village Voice column, and his book "The American Cinema," which ranked American directors in various categories of importance and relevance, escalated the controversy. While the theory had many opponents, even its supporters did not always agree, and two main schools of critics emerged. One group stressed the directors’ recurring thematic motifs, the core meanings in their works, as the true measure of unique vision, while the other stressed form, or the individual styles of directors. Later, most critics accepted that some combination of the two defined the true "auteur."

With his introduction of auteur theory into the cultural dialogue, Sarris helped to define the role of the film critic. By arguing that there was indeed an artist at work in film, he set the course toward a standard of film criticism that went beyond issues of personal taste.

Required Reading: Criticism & Analysis  The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 (Andrew Sarris, 1994), by Jim Emerson from cinepad

Everybody needs a personal pantheon -- a selection of filmmakers whose work means the most to them -- and Sarris (who, along with Pauline Kael, is the most influential of American film critics) turned his into a seminal work of criticism.  Sarris introduced America to the French auteur theory of the director as "author" of a film, and is a more scholarly and disciplined writer and film theoretician than Kael. Which is not to say that he's dry or dull -- he's just more interested in history. His essays on key filmmakers are a joy to read.  This is a landmark book you'll revisit and re-read continually.

Film Comment  Kent Jones from Film Comment


Kent Jones re-examines the 50-year career of Andrew Sarris, the man who brought auteurism to America


The Rewards of Obsessing About Film  Janet Maslin from the New York Times, April 14, 2001

Sasanatieng, Wisit


TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER                          B+                   90

Thailand  (110 mi)  2000


A true midnight movie classic, a candy-colored Thai western with a constantly roving camera that took six years to be released to the United States, a film so artificially stylized in the Douglas Sirk soap opera melodrama camp, featuring horrible writing that could possibly be on par with the Flash Gordon TV series, where there isn’t the remotest sense of nuance, everything is color-exaggerated and so over the top, using humorous references from all sorts of films, especially the Sergio Leone westerns.  Rousing musical themes resemble those of Ennio Morricone, there are plenty of mano a mano scenes, where the camera veers into a close up on the eyes, catching a squint, a twitch, even a water-dropped blink, before then switching into the Takeshi Miike mode, where a cowboy outlaw gang is actually shown shooting a bazooka, with blood-drenched, phantasmagorical imagery which is not afraid to go animated.  The overwrought acting and overall slow pace of the film resembles silent films, where everything is expressed through various poses for the camera.  All in all, this is a delightful romp into a magical mystery western that feels like watching hilariously mediocre television under the influence of a giant hangover. 


Stella Malucci is Rumpoey, the beautiful Governor’s daughter, always dressed in the finest attire, hair and make up perfect, never without full lipstick, accentuating the most color imaginable, while the expressionless Chartchai Ngamsan plays the Black Tiger, a sidekick to Mahesuan, Supakorn Kitsuwan, the two fastest guns in the west.  The Tiger is the silent man in black, while the garishly dressed Mahesuan, with his penciled moustache, is always spitting tobacco juice and grunting, while bellowing when he speaks.  They’re each part of an outlaw gang.  But the film has flashbacks to the Tiger’s youth, then known as Dum, played by a different actor, Suwinit Panjamawat, who woos the same girl.  This shows the history of when Dum first came to the aid of Rumpoey, something he seems to make his life’s work.  She gives him an engraved harmonica wrapped in her scarf to remember her by, and like Charles Bronson in Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969), he mournfully plays that thing to obsession.  Their relationship is a thing for the ages, yet it’s more hilarious in his total detachment, almost delivering a Kaurismäki deadpan while Rumpoey is hysterically melodramatic, accentuated by a romantic song that feels like it came from a Tsai Ming-liang satire. 


While the plot is stupid, and the film is in dire need of an editor, running a good twenty minutes too long, the film is never less than entertaining, as it sustains its adherence to psychedelic art direction, using good-looking actors, a half a dozen songs, and occasional lapses into something so completely improbable that it may remind us of the cardboard good and evil stereotypes from the early Star Trek television show.  The acting is phenomenally bad, which is actually one of the treasures of this film, as it’s so camp, that the style itself becomes the leading interest in the film.  One must give credit where credit is due, art direction by Rutchanon Kayangan and Akradech Kaew Kotr, cinematography by Nattawut Kittithun, original music by Amornbhong Methakunavudh, all of whom were the leading creative influences of this film, which stakes a claim for being one of the more uniquely eccentric films seen for quite awhile.


The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray]

For almost seven years, Wisit Sasanatieng's Thai Western-comedy-romance Tears Of The Black Tiger has been the stuff of cinephile legend, passed around in bootleg form in a generalized protest against the shameless film-hoarding of Harvey Weinstein and Miramax. Always on the lookout for the next foreign-language crossover hit, Weinstein went on an oddball foreign-film-buying binge in the early '00s, then stuck most of those acquisitions on a shelf. Apparently he realized that a film like Tears Of The Black Tiger—with its wildly stylized design and hyperbolic story about a sharpshooting cowboy, his epic love for an heiress, and a gory three-way gang war—could only reach a cult audience.

Some reviewers have semi-sided with Weinstein, suggesting that since Tears Of The Black Tiger spoofs obscure Thai B-movies, American audiences might have trouble grasping that its blatant artificiality is intentional. But that's hogwash. Tears Of The Black Tiger is in the tradition of Bollywood, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Juzo Itami, and Douglas Sirk, and all those are arthouse staples, either directly or through the directors they influenced. Rather than stitching a lot of wrinkles into his boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-becomes-masked-bandit plot, Sasanatieng revels in the chance it gives him to play with the medium, whether by stopping the action so he can insert a slow-motion replay of a ricocheting bullet (and the head it blows to gooey bits) or by staging outdoor scenes in front of abstractly painted backdrops.

But the Tears Of The Black Tiger skeptics are also right, in that the movie is never going to have broad appeal. Though Sasanatieng makes a few swings at real poignancy—which don't really connect—mostly this is the kind of relentlessly postmodern "fun" best served in small portions, and preferably on dessert plates. The film's lofty reputation has as much to do with its scarcity as its "and now here's a midget with a rocket launcher" randomness. Thematically, the movie only hits one point: People are untrustworthy, so a true hero stands alone. Or maybe it hits two points: With Sasanatieng's indulgence of lyrical scenes where young lovers row in a lotus-strewn lake, or his use of flashbacks that look like old movies with frames missing, he seems to be saying that even our memories are a lot better when they look like cinema.

TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER   Steve Erickson from Chronicle of a Passion


Watching "Tears of the Black Tiger" would be a strange experience under any circumstances, but this Thai Western's oddness is enhanced by its roundabout path to American screens. Made in 2000, it created a big enough buzz at Cannes the following year to draw the attention of Miramax. Once they acquired it, their interest suddenly evaporated. Like many Asian films they picked up, it languished in their vaults for years. When the New York Asian Film Festival tried to book it a few years ago, they were turned down.

However, once the Weinstein brothers left the company to start their own, Miramax suddenly showed a new willingness to license unreleased films from its catalogue to other distributors. In fall 2005, Magnolia Pictures released Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Pulse;" with "Tears of the Black Tiger," they've rescued their second film from Miramax's clutches.

Proliferating in several different cuts, "Tears of the Black Tiger" has been more a rumor than a film one can actually watch. The difficulty of seeing it has worked as a form of anti-hype. The film's reputation has only benefited from its rarity. While fascinating in many respects, it's not a neglected classic like Jean-Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows," made in 1969 and released for the first time in the
U.S. last year.

Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan), a young peasant, falls in love with rich girl Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi). They plan to be together, but time intervenes. Ten years pass before they meet up again. Dum's father (Kanchit Kwanpracha) is killed by outlaws, while Rumpoey plans to marry a cop, Captain Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth). Hoping to bring down his father's murderers, Dum becomes "Black Tiger," a notorious bandit, in an attempt to insinuate himself into the gang. He still hopes to convince Rumpoey not to marry her fiancée.

Thailand's cinematic accomplishments, its films simply didn't make it onto the American arthouse/festival circuit until the past decade. "Tears of the Black Tiger" seems alien because it combines familiar influences-Douglas Sirk's melodramas, Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah's Westerns-with indigenous ones. In the press kit, Sasanatieng cites Thai director Rattana Pestonji as his primary inspiration, but American spectators have to take his word for it. In some ways, his compatriot Apichatpong Weerasethakul's films, which show little influence from Western narrative, are easier to appreciate. Weerasethakul embraces the enigmatic openly, while Sasanatieng holds meaning at arm's length.

"Tears of the Black Tiger" borrows images and scenes from Leone and Peckinpah-a character's fondness for the harmonica from the former, a machine gun massacre from the latter. Drawing less directly from Sirk, it evokes '50s melodrama through plot, color, and cinematography. Sasanatieng's use of color is his film's most immediately striking quality. The colors are simultaneously vivid and somewhat faded. "Tears of the Black Tiger" was digitally altered to look like Technicolor, but it doesn't aim to match the brightness of a new print.

As much as old films themselves, "Black Tiger" recalls spectators' memories of them. This becomes explicit when a flashback is depicted through simulated scratches, a crackly soundtrack, and jump cuts meant to suggest missing frames.

Sasanatieng says he wants to offer "nostalgia as future shock." For American audiences, "Tears of the Black Tiger" summons nostalgia for an alternate film history that we can't access. Often described as campy, the film's tone is hard to pin down. Its emotional textures are contradictory, with the jokey and show-offy jostling next to an apparently heartfelt love story. Visually, its accomplishments are tremendous; many scenes would be equally breathtaking as still photos. On an emotional level, however, the film never gels.

For one thing, it's too gory to sustain a lighthearted spirit-brain matter splatters across the screen twice, as well as detached arms-but spends too much effort putting its romance within ironic quotes to work as a full-fledged melodrama. Perhaps something got lost in translation, as the love scenes' dialogue is full of purple prose and clichés. However, the performances would look wooden even without subtitles.

Only in the final scene does "Tears of the Black Tiger" achieve the tragic grandeur it aims for. Or does it? For all the lush splendor of Sasanatieng's images, his greatest achievement may be making a film that so tantalizingly resists one's efforts to figure out what it is trying to accomplish.


The Village Voice [Nathan Lee]


Sight and Sound   Edward Buscombe (Lee Wong)


Slant Magazine [Nick Schager]


Slate (Dana Stevens) [Stephanie Zacharek]


Jigsaw Lounge (Neil Young) : "electric turquoise... fluorescent emerald"


Tears of the Black Tiger (2000)  Bryant Frazer from Deep Focus  Gopal [Tim Knight]


Film Journal International (Daniel Eagan)




Austin Chronicle [Marrit Ingman]


Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert)


New York Times (registration req'd)  A.O. Scott


CITIZEN DOG (Mah Nakorn)

Thailand  (100 mi)  2004


Martin Tsai's Blog

Wisit Sasanatieng’s whimsical fable-like musical romance Citizen Dog has invited many Amélie comparisons. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s international hit is vigorously cutesy at best, and it doesn’t come close to capturing the kind of genuinely inspired and beguiling magic seen in Sasanatieng’s sophomore feature. Making over Bangkok with the same hyper neon colour scheme seen in the director’s Tears of the Black Tiger, the film involves an introvert with a severed index finger, a compulsive-obsessive fixated on environmental activism, a chain-smoking 22-year-old who looks to be about seven, a talking stuffed bear, a zombie motorcycle taxi driver and a pair of lovers fetishizing over packed-sardines bus rides. It’s unfortunate that the film’s Thai origin might compel Western viewers to dismiss its quirkiness as eccentricity, effectively confining the film to the festival and arthouse ghetto and barring it from reaching an Amélie-size audience. Then again, Sasanatieng might already be a household name here if Miramax had bothered to release Tears of the Black Tiger.

Fipresci  Jacob Neiiendam

Despite screening outside both the international and ASEAN competition at the Bangkok International Film Festival, the most talked about film at the event was Wisit Sasanatieng's highly anticipated Citizen Dog (Ma Nakorn). The producers of it no doubt kept it in the Thai Panorama not to hamper the film's life on international festivals, where it should have an even better and longer life than the director's previous effort, Tears of the Black Tiger (Fa Talai Jone). Wisit Sasanatieng's feature directing debut was the first Thai film selected for Cannes, where it screened in Un Certain Regard in 2001.

Citizen Dog is a surreal modern fable about a country boy Pod (Amornpong Maithakunnawut), who goes to the big city of Bangkok , despite his grandmother's warning that he will grow a tail if he ever gets a job there. Nevertheless, he quickly starts working in a sardine-packing factory, loses his finger, finds it again and gets a new friend in the process. The fast paced introduction to this warped reality is nothing short of hilarious and Sasanatieng's great looking color-splashed world (courtesy of DoP Rewat Phreeleat) is as inventive as Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 hit Amelie , which seems to have had a strong influence on the Thai filmmaker. However, the film's central story sees Pod falling in love with Jin (Sangthong), a maid obsessed with cleaning, who has her head buried in a mysterious white book. The dreamless boy only has eyes for the dreamy girl, but she is too caught up in her own world to notice.

The story throws everything from musical numbers (with Thai pop ballads) to undead motorcycle drivers and talking teddy bears into the mix, and it is at its best when it constantly surprises the audience with its surreal absurd humor. However, it really wants to be romantic at the same time, and it is much less successful at that. About halfway through, the film loses its momentum, it simply runs out of story when the relationship between Pod and Jin fails to develop, and the film never really recaptures the audiences' attention.

Despite the script problems in the second half, Citizen Dog is more fully developed and accomplished than the Western parody homage Tears of the Black Tiger . Sasanatieng's background as a successful director of commercials is still evident, but he is on his way to finding his own voice. Along with his close collaborators: Nonzee Nimibutr, for whom he wrote Nang Nak in 1999, and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang ( Last Life in the Universe ), who also narrates Citizen Dog , Wisit Sasanatieng confirms his position in the forefront of the Thai New Wave. Expect to see Citizen Dog at a major European festival in the months to come. (Jay Seaver)


Bangkok Nation  Phatarawadee Phataranawik [Gary W. Tooze]


Satana, Tura – B-movie sexploitation actress extraordinaire


The Official Tura Satana Website


Cult Sirens: Tura Satana


Tura Satana  Sandra Brennan from All Movie Guide


Tura!!!  Faster, Psychotronic, Kill! Kill!  Feature and interview with Satana by Michael J. Weldon from Psychotronic magazine (1999)


tura satana  Interview by Dr. Cliff, from Rooms in the House by Dr. Cliff, September 1999


retroCRUSH: The World's Greatest Pop Culture Site  Interview by Randy Waage from retroCRUSH (2005)


C I N E B E A T S :: Tura Satana - An American Icon :: June :: 2007   June 13, 2007


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Satrapi, Marjane


PERSEPOLIS                                                          B                     88

France  USA  (94 mi)  2007  co-director:  Vincent Paronnaud


Freedom always has a price


After receiving such critical acclaim for notably sharp commentary, including sharing the Jury Prize this year at Cannes with SILENT LIGHT, I have to admit this was something of a mild disappointment as it’s not nearly on the same level as the marvelously unique Reygadas film, and there’s only a bit of an edge in this attempt to tell a brash, candidly honest, autobiographical coming-of-age story set during the dawn of the Islamic revolution, showing a young girl growing up in Iran, transplanted to Europe during the Revolution, where the film attracts attention, if for no other reason than it’s politically timely due to the Bush administration’s noticeable belligerence towards Iran.  Satrapi’s film, exquisitely featuring the real life mother and daughter voices of Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni respectively, takes us through her mixture of dead serious as well as comically observant recollections of the brutal crackdown by the current Iranian regime, something no one currently living in Iran could do, where suppressing the rights of women and many of its citizens through a police state using torture and imprisonment, even execution, are still quite common, while also stressing the aftereffects of the horrors of war, specifically the effect it has on children.  It should be pointed out, however, that the film is equally critical of the young girl’s experiences in Europe, where she was victimized by racist stereotypes and insults, alienated and left alone when there was no one who gave a damn about her.  By the end, however, damaged by her experiences in both worlds, there is something of an abrupt conclusion, where the film just decides that it’s over, while we, the viewer, are to surmise that her life abroad is really just beginning.  Persepolis is the Greek name for the ancient Persian capital of Parsa, an interesting link between the cultures of the East and the West, which is the precarious place Satrapi finds herself, juxtaposed in the middle somewhere like a no man’s land, finding herself in a self-imposed exile from the lack of freedom in her homeland yet also unappreciated in her adopted country, where she will always be contemptuously viewed as a foreigner.   

While the animated style, also drawn by Satrapi, is simplistic, most of it in black, white, and gray, with occasional spurts in color, somewhat resembling the style of the French children’s books and subsequent cartoon Madeline, another delightfully candid, non-conformist child growing up in Paris, Marjane grew up during the turbulent years in Tehran in the late 70’s when the Shah was deposed by a rising tide of radical Islamic fundamentalism.  Coming from a loving family of wealth, she was exposed to progressive ideas from within her own family, including a Marxist uncle who studied in Russia.  Amusingly, her childhood allegiance in support of the Shah, who was chosen by God according to her school, quickly shifts where she’s soon seen parading around the house in favor of revolution.  And as a rebellious teenager, her Westernized musical interests in ABBA and Iron Maiden are outlawed, along with her idol Bruce Lee, French fries with ketchup and her Adidas shoes, as are many of her outspoken views, many of which mimic those of her grandmother, voiced perfectly by 91-year-old Danielle Darrieux, a liberated woman who’s used to speaking her mind, including her own philosophical take on men with small dicks.  But Marjane’s views really get a jolt of reality when her uncle, who advocated democracy, previously imprisoned by the Shah and tortured by jailers trained by the CIA, claiming “they certainly knew their stuff,” is arrested again and eventually executed by the new regime of religious mullahs.  While literally hundreds of thousands die needlessly in the Iran/Iraq war, where the West cynically arms each side against the other, the war comes perilously close to home when the house next door is bombed, so for her own protection her parents decide to send her to a French school in Vienna.  There she finds a group of outcasts, all of whom have families they can rely upon, while she suffers an endless stream of evictions.  “In the West, you can die on the street and nobody cares.”  Yet there she discovers an underground punk scene of drugs and casual sex along with steins of beer, where in a hilarious hangover scene she can’t stop her own out-of-tune karaoke version of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” from playing inside her head, where she sees herself performing to the music inspired by martial arts movements.  But after a series of relationships gone wrong and a retreat into the isolated world of books, eventually she becomes so lonely and destitute that she returns home again, but the world she hoped to find has already disappeared. 

Adding to the film’s charm are the personal touches, the way that Marjane internalizes her experiences with self-deprecating humor which is usually at odds with her friends and the society around her, including imagined glimpses of herself chatting with God and Karl Marx.  Initially when she observes people in Tehran getting arrested on the street with such regularity, she develops a flippant juvenile attitude about turning in innocent victims to the police, like it’s some kind of joke, which earns her a well deserved chastisement from her clearly infuriorated grandmother who asks if she’s ever heard of the word integrity.  Enrolling at the University of Tehran which is still caught up in the wave of fundamentalism, she absurdly sits in art class sketching a government approved, anatomically correct, fully veiled model in place of a nude body, she discovers that the students are actually advocating more restrictions and fewer rights for women, which leads to another personalized crisis which is amusingly depicted as depression.  In time, she gets arrested for holding hands with a boyfriend in public, which is punishable by a large fine or by lashes.  When she thinks marriage will solve all her problems, she discovers her choice for a husband is an unambitious layabout who prefers sitting around watching TV.  Leaving her little choice in the matter, she discovers she is too great a risk to remain in Iran, as independent minded people such as herself are presumed guilty - - of something, so she decides to accept a lifelong exile away from her family, returning to Paris where she continues to live to this day with a live in friend, a fellow cartoonist who helped her draw and direct this film.  The film is engaging, but it feels strangely tame, at least by Western standards, yet much too wicked to have much of an impact on Iranians.  Perhaps the biggest disappointment of all was hearing afterwards that there is expected to be an outpouring of cash for an English language version of the film starring the voices of Gena Rowlands and Deneuve as the grandmother and mother, also a couple of guys hurting for cash, Sean Penn and Iggy Popp. 

Persepolis  JR Jones from the Reader

Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical comics about growing up in postrevolutionary Iran have been condensed by Satrapi and codirector Vincent Paronnaud into a beautiful black-and-white animation that both preserves their simplicity and incorporates more fanciful imagery, sometimes from traditional Persian art. Little Marjane, the headstrong daughter of two liberal intellectuals in Tehran, grows into a rebellious teenager who defies the paternalism of the Islamic republic. Shipped off to Vienna for her own safety, she suffers the usual trials of adolescence while trying to come to terms with her national identity. The story's greatest value lies in its elegant twining of the universal and the obscure: Satrapi's coming-of-age should be familiar to all, but along with it come startling glimpses of everyday life under the heavy hand of a Muslim theocracy. PG-13, 95 min. [MaryAnn Johanson]

There is no question that the animation style of this French production is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before: it apes the style of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name, with its scratchboard vitality and black-and-white insistence. But something essential has gotten lost in the translation from the page to the screen. Which is not to say that this isn’t a fine film: it’s just not great, like I would have expected it to be, like the source material is. Satrapi -- working with French comics artist Vincent Paronnaud -- tells the true story of her childhood in Iran before and during the Islamic revolution, when her girlish vivacity, fueled by Western rock music and fantasies of the wider world that any teenager would recognize, slowly gets crushed under the tyrannical thumb of religious oppression. Small details about secret parties and illegal alcohol and other furtive defiance of the oppressive rule of the mullahs build to a larger, poignant story about overcoming fear -- and learning to cope with it -- when positively everything sprials out of control. As a cautionary tale about how fast tyranny can fall, there is power here. As a coming-of-age tale of a girlhood lost too soon, it leaves us wanting, just a little.

Between Productions [Robert Cashill]

In his review of Persepolis in the current issue of Cineaste, my colleague Rahul Hamid nails what bugged me about the film, a wholly worthwhile endeavor that I enjoyed watching despite a creeping dissatisfaction. Co-director Marjane Satrapi took incidents from her childhood in Iran, as the mullahs took power, and transposed them into two well-received graphic novels. From her exile in France, she and Vincent Parannoud have turned them into an animated film, whose stylized black-and-white images are in old-school 2D, no digital gimmickry here.

Their screenplay is as unadorned as the animation; not artless, but it gets down to business without much fuss or moralizing. Young Marjane, who loves Bruce Lee and ABBA, finds herself in conflict with her classmates and the government at large as the comforts of Tehran, provided under the dubious stewardship of the shah, vanish. Off she goes to France, for a first round of culture shock, followed by another as she returns to her remaining family in Iran, proving, wistfully but defiantly, that you can't go home again. Vocally, the movie is a family affair: Marjane is voiced by Chiara Mastroianni, whose mother, Catherine Deneuve, provides the voice of Marjane's mom. (Marjane's tart grandmother is played by 91-year-old Danielle Darrieux, who in the press kit notes that she has lost count of how many times Deneuve has played her daughter.)

Not that I didn't like hearing these distinguished ladies grouse about hard times in Iran, but I think their Gallic charm works against the effectiveness of the piece. The movie seems to be taking place in the next arrondissement over, rather than in the mystery-shrouded capital whose history over the last 30 years has been veiled from us. Rahul says the books are much more time- and place-specific; the film is more of a gloss, humorous and poignant, but too simple, more of a primer. The Western, "just-like-us" side of the film dominates. I still recommend a viewing: Persepolis, which Sony Pictures Classics opens tomorrow, is an educational entertainment that neither bores nor patronizes, a rare-enough hat trick for movies here and abroad to pull off. And I will treasure a cinema-set scene that unites Madame de... and Godzilla, two of my all-time favorite film characters. But I felt the reduction from page to screen.

from imdb Author: Chris Knipp from Berkeley, California:

Iranian expatriate Marjane Satrapi's 'Persepolis' graphic novel series (2000-2003) recounts her life to age 24, when she left Iran with her family's blessing for the last time and went to live in France (1994). Collaborating with her Paris studio-mate, cartoonist and video artist Vincent Paronnaud and a stellar French cast, Sagtrapi has successfully transferred her drawings and story to a 95-minute black-and-white animated film. Chiara Mastroianni is the voice for the adolescent and young adult Marjane; Chiara's real-life mother Catherine Deneuve does Marjane's mother and veteran French star Danielle Darrieux is the voice of Marjane's feisty, outspoken, and totally irreverent grandmother. (An English-language version featuring Sean Penn, Iggy Pop, and Gena Rowlands apparently will be released later.) Word on the street is that this more handmade French animated film, now in selected US theaters, may give Pixar's slick 'Ratatouille' a run for the Best Animation Oscar this year.

Satrapi, who told this story first in autobiographical comic strips that became best-selling books, grew up in a progressive ruling-class Tehran family. An uncle with whom she was close had been to Leningrad to study Marxism-Leninism. As a little girl she picked up the radicalism, and had some of her grandmother's genes for outspokenness. Shifting allegiances and roles quickly, she soon gave up supporting the Shah and walked around the house calling for revolution. She tried on ideas constantly, posing as a prophet, then a dictator. God and Karl Marx, whom she imagines appearing to her in her bedroom, vie with each other for her affections. Her communist uncle is hopeful that the revolution will grow democratic; but while he is imprisoned and tortured by CIA-trained jailers under the Shah, he is executed under the mullahs—whom, strangely, the narrator says little about. (Khomeini is not depicted.) All the girls must take the veil. But Marji, already an avid collector of bootleg heavy metal and punk tapes, remains an obstreperous girl who in class outspokenly challenges the pious lies of her chador-wearing teachers.

Iran's war with Iraq causes terrible disruption: the house next door is destroyed. For her safety in this desperate moment for the country (1983), Marji's parents send her to Vienna, where she attends a French school, as she has all her life. Though she eventually becomes part of a group of misfit students, Vienna is a hard and lonely time for the girl. She grows up physically (which happens in seconds in the animation—the film's most eye-catching sequence) and enters love problems: first with a boy who turns out to be gay; then one who sleeps with another girl—a betrayal that makes her so despondent she becomes homeless and ill and almost dies. She returns to an Iran where the upper class is living a double life of secret alcohol parties and music. Attending university in Tehran she meets a man named Reza and marries him--but the union is a mistake, which her grandmother cheerfully dismisses. "The first marriage is just practice," she says. A bored, doodling psychiatrist listens to her troubles, tells her she's depressed, and gives her some pills--which seem to make her more depressed.

Finally the time comes when Marjane is in effect ordered by her family to leave the country for her own good. She goes to France, where she has remained ever since. That's the end of the book and the film.

Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel 'Maus' was an avowed inspiration for Satrapi's work, as well as a French comics artist named David B., whose style she imitated at first. The collaboration with Paronnaud came about after they shared a studio.

The animated 'Persepolis' received rave reviews in France and shared the Cannes festival Jury Prize with Carlos Reygadas' 'Silent Light.' It premiered in the US at the New York Film Festival and opened in some US theaters on Christmas Day.

The US's newly hostile stand against Iran may spur wider Stateside interest in this film, which skillfully combines a young woman's coming of age story with contemporary political history. This remains, however, basically a child's and young adult's version of events, a kind of post-1970 'Iranian History for Dummies.' The viewpoint has obvious limitations as a depiction of the larger events that are so much a part of the story Satrapi tells. The film moreover adds little that wasn't in the book other than a little more gray cross-hatching and in fact omits some day-to-day detail that make the original version specific. The film's look too remains as bare-bones, as virtually style-neutral as the book's. This is not to say 'Persepolis' hasn't complete technical integrity, clarity of storytelling, and much charm; nonetheless viewers in search of a phantasmogoric visual banquet or a thoroughgoing picture of modern Iranian history may be left hungry for more.

PERSEPOLIS   Steve Erickson from Chronicle of a Passion

"Persepolis" isn't any old coming-of-age story, just as Iran is no ordinary country. As the Bush administration lies its way toward a potential military confrontation with that nation, artists like Marjane Satrapi, who can build a bridge between the West and the Muslim world, are a rare breed. She's far from the only one, but she speaks to a larger audience than novelist Nahid Rachlin or even video artist Shirin Neshat.

Based on Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novels, "Persepolis" was made in France; a live-action version of the story shot outside Iran would be a terrible idea. One American producer wanted to make it with Jennifer Lopez and Brad Pitt as Satrapi's parents - but the unreality of this film's animated images makes the translation go down smoother.

When I first saw Jafar Panahi's "Offside," I was startled by its combination of feminism and Iranian nationalism. Because it was shot in France, "Persepolis" is able to go much further in its critique of the Iranian government, yet it also includes a scene where a teenage Satrapi declares, "Yes, I'm Iranian, and yes, I'm proud of it!"

The film has been condemned by the Iranian government, but self-hatred is the last thing of which its vibrant heroine is guilty. "Persepolis" shows that one can rebel against Iranian misogyny without capitulating to "Axis of Evil"-style rhetoric or idealizing the West.

"Persepolis" begins with Marjane (Chiara Mastroianni; the character is voiced as a child by Gabrielle Lopes) contemplating a flight to Iran at Paris' Orly airport. This section is in color, but the rest of the film, consisting of her reminisces as she decides what to do, is black and white.

Her flashbacks begin in 1978 Iran, when she was nine years old. The Shah is just about to fall. Her uncle has just been released from prison, where he suffered brutal torture. Protests are a daily event. The liberal Satrapi family feels betrayed by the Islamic revolution, but young Marjane has a hard time taking it seriously. She grows into a rebellious teenager, wearing the chador but writing "punk is not ded {sic}" on the back of her jacket. Her parents (Simon Akbarian and Catherine Denueve) decide to send her to Vienna for high school.

In the film's press kit, Satrapi cites 1920s German Expressionism and '40s Italian neo-realism as her greatest cinematic influences. The notion of combining the two styles seems improbable, even contradictory - one reveled in stylistic excess and artificiality, while the other used bombed-out streets as locations. However, Satrapi and Paronnaud's direction shows that they can indeed be brought together.

In scenes of everyday life, their style is matter-of-fact. Satrapi drew all the characters, even background extras and herself. Her scrawl appears simple, even childlike. No one has nostrils or lips.

All the same, Satrapi is no minimalist. "Persepolis" often takes off into stylized flights of fancy. The use of black and white hasn't restricted the filmmakers' imagination. When Marjane talks to God, they fill the screen with curlicues. Many backgrounds are colored with beautifully modulated washes of gray. While sticking to a small palette, Satrapi and Paronnaud use every possibility it offers.

As a literary phenomenon, "Persepolis" might be comparable to Khaled Hosseini's novel "The Kite Runner." The differences between Satrapi and Paronnaud's film and Marc Forster's film adapted from the Hosseini novel, released two weeks ago, are quite telling. Once they emigrate to America, Forster and Hosseini's Afghan characters never experience racism or discrimination. They're even able to reconstruct the bazaars of Kabul in a California antique market.

On the other hand, Marjane finds life in Vienna a frustrating and alienating experience. Satrapi obviously doesn't regret moving to France, but her film acknowledges the pain of exile and the cluelessness with which Westerners often treat immigrants. Political activism costs several of Marjane's relatives and friends their lives, but for the hippie and punk "anarchists" of Vienna, it's a game to be played while smoking joints and drinking beer. In Iran, Western pop culture inspires her - she loves punk, ABBA, and Iron Maiden - but actually living in the West is a much different story.

As a storyteller, Satrapi's most impressive quality is her ability to bring a mature perspective to the rebellion of her childhood and adolescence. Her film's playfulness honors the boisterous girl she once was. The sequence where she wakes up from a drug overdose, resolves to get her life back together, and bursts out with an off-key, heavily accented version of "Eye of the Tiger" is one of the year's funniest .

Still, "Persepolis" goes far beyond mere nostalgia. The experiences of displacement Satrapi relates are hardly unique. In some respects - particularly in the case of the wise grandmother voiced by Danielle Darrieux - it feels thoroughly French; in others, it seems to herald a new breed of cross-national cinema that can't be boiled down to Europudding.

PopMatters [Cynthia Fuchs]

The Village Voice [Nick Pinkerton]

Screen International   Lee Marshall from Screendaily

indieWIRE (Kristi Mitsuda)   from Reverse Shot

Persepolis  Patrick Z. McGavin [Chris Barsanti]

CompuServe [Harvey Karten]

Ruthless Reviews ("potentially offensive")  Matt Cale

Chicago Reader (J.R. Jones) (Boyd van Hoeij)
CNN Showbiz (Tom Charity)
The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray]
Cinepinion [Henry Stewart]
Slant Magazine [Nick Schager] [Stephanie Zacharek]
DVD Times  Noel Megahey
DVD Talk theatrical [Jamie S. Rich]
Window to the Movies (Jeffrey Chen)
Combustible Celluloid [Jeffrey M. Anderson]
Newsweek (David Ansen)


Marjane Satrapi projects voices of Iranian women on the big screen ...  Kelley L. Carter interviews the director from the Chicago Tribune


Los Angeles Times [Carina Chocano]

Chicago Tribune (Tasha Robinson)

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

New York Times (registration req'd)  A.O. Scott

Sauper, Herbert


DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE                           A-                    94

Austria  Belgium  France  (107 mi)  2004


Is this what Franz Fanon envisioned when he wrote The Wretched of the Earth?  If ever there was a film that exposed the woes of capitalism, how it perpetrates an unequal distribution of wealth, how the goods and services are produced by a lower class unable to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, which is instead enjoyed by a middle to upper class, the only groups able to afford the price – this is it.  In nightmarish fashion, some of it truly terrifying, perhaps excessively so, as nothing is more terrifying than reality, the filmmaker exposes the day to day realities of living in Tanzania today, home of the birthplace of original man along the banks of Lake Victoria, now, sadly, victims of extremely high death rates from AIDS, where the religious figures refuse to counsel or recommend the use of condoms, believing using a condom is a sin, where widows are forced into prostitution, where the extreme poverty leads to young kids who melt plastic fish containers, sniffing a product that resembles glue, where they are then sexually victimized, unable to awaken from their drug-induced stupor.  The film does not use the typical talking points method, where various experts bore us to death with details, instead it focuses on the people in the region and lets them tell their story, visually painting a journalistic portrait of graphic, unforgettable images that few of us could even imagine, much less see captured on film.
The corporations are seen patting themselves on the back, claiming they’ve provided 1000 jobs to the region, cleaned up the factories so they’re up to the European Union standards, capturing 500 tons of fish every day, completely oblivious to the starvation and disease that dominates the region, where some 2 million Tanzanians face starvation so that another 2 million Europeans can eat Tanzanian perch every day.  Someone, on one day a few decades ago, placed a Nile perch in Lake Victoria, a fish that was not indigenous to the lake, that through the passage of time, has eaten all the other groups of fish in the lake, including fish that eat algae and have historically kept the lake clean, leading to a giant perch the size of a baby whale which is exported exclusively to Europe, Russia, and Japan, a fish that is not affordable to the local fisherman or any of the villagers, who instead are left the fish carcasses to live on, where we see truckloads of garbage being unloaded, basically rotting fish, so you can imagine what it smells like, with worms, maggots and other vermin crawling all over it, which young women collect and place on racks to dry, which is then sold in the local markets of Mwanza.  There is an extraordinary scene on a beach filled with hungry children, where a pot of rice is placed on the ground, and they all grab at once with their bare hands, pushing and shoving others out of the way, even taking the food from others through brute force, leaving some with handfuls and others with nothing, a staggering image of survival of the fittest. 
The film is balanced between images of the locals and images of the profiteers, who sit around with healthy fish strung on a line and cook their fish while drinking Scotch, ridiculing the behavior of the blacks in the region, calling them lazy and unwilling to work, while they surround themselves with nearly exclusively white Europeanized business partners.  The Australian or Russian pilots arrive in Tanzania with their planes empty, and leave completely filled with already packaged perch fillets.  The pilots have their pick of the local prostitutes.  In one horrid scene, the women are commiserating with each other after one of the pilots has stabbed and killed one of their friends, after promising her a better life with educational opportunities.  One of the Russian pilots eventually confesses on camera to flying in tanks and arms, which he delivers to Angola, then flies to Tanzania and loads his plane with fish to return to Russia.  He dreams of a world where all the children are happy, but that isn’t this world we’re living in, as evidenced by the perfection of the final shot.  This is a raw and devastating look at the human condition, an amazing journalistic exposé, with unforgettable images as harrowing and appalling as anything you're ever likely to see, captured with detachment and objectivity, with the filmmaker occasionally asking questions quietly, but obviously getting footage that no one would believe if they didn’t see it for themselves.  According to the director, his recollection of this film is sitting “in the merciless equatorial sun surrounded by a million Nile perch skeletons, trying not to go mad.” 


Darwin's Nightmare   Ed Gonzalez from Slant magazine


After being introduced into Lake Victoria during the 1960s, the Nile perch would go on to devastate the natural ecosystem of the world's second largest lake, a place often cited as the origin of all human life. With Darwin's Nightmare, director Huper Sauper traces the effects this scientific experiment has had on the ecology and people of Tanzania, namely those in the Mwanza region of the country. Aesthetically and theoretically, the film is the antithesis of Errol Morris's beautiful but strenuous Fast, Cheap & Out of Control in that Sauper doesn't connect the many pieces of his thesis for the audience. What's revealed to us over the course of the documentary's two hours is a horrifying vision of globalization gone terribly amuck, less a nightmare than a vicious domino effect: Though the preponderance of the Nile perch in Lake Victoria brings jobs to the region, the fish are not meant for Tanzanians but the two million people in Europe—conspicuous by their absence—who feast on it everyday. Once the tender white fillets have been removed from the fish, the carcasses are taken to maggot-infested dumps, where ammonia fumes cripple the people responsible for salvaging the fish heads that are later fried and fed to the impoverished masses. Sauper piles one horror on top of another, revealing the means by which local blacks become complicit in the abuse of their people and how the material used to export the fish often gets into the hands of local children, who use it to make glue for huffing purposes, which only exposes and numbs them to all sorts of horrors including rape. The ultimate irony, though, is that the perch leaves the country via Russian planes often responsible for feeding revolutions in Rwanda and other war-torn regions with arms made all over Europe. This is a film with a lot on its plate, and while Sauper strains to connect the AIDS crisis in the region to the perch nightmare, the message that globalization in the region has become tantamount to human slave trade is never lost.


by Steve Erickson  Darwin’s Nightmare from Cinema Scope

As carefully structured as narrative fiction, Darwin’s Nightmare artfully manipulates its documentary materials around its chief subject and chief metaphor: the voracious Nile perch that has destroyed both the ecosystem and the socioeconomic life around Tanzania’s Lake Victoria, the world’s largest tropical lake. Introduced into the lake as an experiment at some unknown date nearly half a century ago, the Nile perch thrived and eventually decimated the rest of the fish population, while the subsequent exploitation of the perch for the European market effectively enslaved the native Tanzanian population. The picture Sauper presents is unrelentingly grim, yet even while piling a final, even more awful revelation upon evident disaster, the film never turns into a monotonous parade of horrors; Sauper is after understanding, not despair. Darwin’s Nightmare would make a telling double bill with Jia Zhangke’s The World (2004), suggesting that while in Beijing the rapacity of globalization is required to hide behind the mask of cosmopolitan glamour, in Tanzania it is free to show its ugliest face.

An airport lies near the lake in the village of Mwanza, its runway surrounded by debris from crashed planes. Largely piloted by Russians and Ukrainians, aircraft arrive several times a day to transport the day’s catch back to Europe. Although the perch are rapaciously abundant, the exorbitant price they command on the European market dictates that the native Tanzanians cannot enjoy their own “natural” bounty; they subsist on fried fish heads and the meat rejected by Europeans. The fishermen can barely make a living, women have few options other than prostitution, HIV runs rampant, and the streets are filled with glue-sniffing orphans.

Though blame is certainly there to be assigned, Sauper is not simply out to point fingers. The situation depicted in Darwin’s Nightmare is particularly dismal because the only villain is an abstract ideology which entraps its practitioners as much as its victims. While the Ukrainian and Russian pilots are certainly more privileged than the Tanzanians, they often succumb to the stresses of their dangerous job and risk their lives by overloading their planes with fish. European Union bureaucrats seem hopelessly detached from African reality rather than ill-intentioned, while the Tanzanian government itself remains virtually invisible in the face of their people’s suffering.

The ugliness of the situation, unfortunately, finds its way into the aesthetic as well. If Darwin’s Nightmare has a major flaw, it is its crude videography: interiors are muddy, night scenes murky. However, the sun-bleached backgrounds, light glares and bleeding colours suit the film at times; attractively framed and lit racks of rotting, maggot-covered fish carcasses wouldn’t necessarily be any more expressive. Sauper’s direction is a step above Robert Greenwald’s degree-zero aesthetics—or much recent, polemically-driven work made by people who know more about activism than filmmaking—because he knows how to make the best artistic use of his limited resources.

Raymond Depardon’s Africa: What About the Pain? (1996) sums up the relentlessly downbeat tone of most Western-made documentaries about Africa, and while Darwin’s Nightmare is no exception to this model, neither is it completely hopeless. The residents of Mwanza are dignified, devoid of self-pity and as articulate as their command of English allows them to be. (While the vast majority of dialogue is spoken in English, the film is nevertheless subtitled.) They’re resigned to an incredibly difficult situation, treating it as a fact of life, most memorably a man who guards a research fishery, armed with poisoned arrows to ward off the thieves who killed his predecessor, who speaks with disarming matter-of-factness about looking forward to another war so that he can reclaim the soldier’s salary he once pulled down.

The ironic complexity of this man’s sentiments indicates how Sauper is after something deeper than an accusatory broadside. He’s searching for a system rather than a situation, which he anchors around the question of whether the cargo planes, supposedly arriving empty from Europe, are in fact carrying weapons destined for the numerous trans-African conflicts. The answer, chillingly and unsurprisingly, appears to be yes. As EU representatives speak glibly about the Africans’ entrepreneurial skills while turning a blind eye to arms sales to the Congo and Angola, several of Sauper’s interview subjects plainly explain why both Europeans and Africans might prefer war to peace. Yet these kinds of grim ironies can be useful as well. Globalization has wreaked havoc on Tanzania, but as a consequence, it may make the world’s interconnections plainer; and Sauper, with dogged persistence and fine artistry, puts in the hard work of exposing the chain of responsibility. In 1995, Janet Maslin foolishly described Larry Clark’s Kids as “a wake-up call to the world.” As essential as it is harrowing, Darwin’s Nightmare truly fits that bill.

The ambiguity of Darwin's Nightmare  Olivier Barlet from Africultures, April 1, 2006


"The Little Story": Darwin's Nightmare, Hubert Sauper; Les Saignantes, Jean-Pierre Bekolo  Kenneth Harrow from Africultures, December 28, 2006


Saura, Carlos


Carlos Saura  Manuel Yáñez Murillo from Film Comment



Spain  (109 mi)  1976


 by Paul Julian Smith  The Past Is Not Past, Criterion essay


The Criterion Collection #403: Carlos Saura's Cría cuervos  Dan Callahan from the House Next Door



Spain  1995


Flamenco  Jose Arroyo from Sight and Sound

In the old Plaza de Armas train station in Seville some of the greatest exponents of flamenco show off their artistry by playing, dancing or singing in various styles including bulerías, guajiras, alegrías, soleas, tangos, villancicos and farrucas.


While lovers of the musical mourn its passing in Hollywood, Carlos Saura - Spain's greatest director of art cinema in the 60s and 70s - has diligently produced a body of remarkable films in the genre. From the flamenco trilogy he made in the 80s (Bodas de sangre, Carmen and El amor brujo) to more recent forays such as Ay, Carmela!, Sevillanas and Tango, Saura has now spent 20 years paring down the musical, adapting it to Hispanic forms of music and dance and collaborating with the greatest dancers, choreographers and musicians of flamenco and tango. With the possible exceptions of Vincente Minnelli (An American in Paris, 1951) and Bob Fosse (All that Jazz, 1979), no one has filmed dance better; certainly no one is doing it better now.

Flamenco is deceptively simple. Initially one wonders if it's a documentary. The setting is the old Plaza de Armas train station in Seville, transformed into an impromptu performance space. The structure of the film is quasi-educational: some of the most acclaimed contemporary performers demonstrate their virtuosity in the various styles flamenco takes, impressing us with the range, depth and expressivity of the form. The brief voiceover at the beginning tells us that flamenco has its roots in the mixture of peoples, religions and cultures in Andalusia in the south of Spain. There, a combination of Arabic jarachas, Greek choruses, Castilian epic poetry, Jewish lament and black music from Cuba (son) received a gypsy accent and developed into flamenco as we know it today.

We soon realise, however, that Flamenco is less a straight documentary than an intensely creative response to the aesthetic and cultural particularities of flamenco dance and music. Through its theatrical presentation, striking cinematography by Vittorio Storaro (Last Tango in Paris, 1972) and minimal but vivid set design, Saura's mise en scène gives visual expression to flamenco's vibrancy. All the singers and dancers are filmed in front of modernist settings: brightly coloured circles, squares, triangles and rectangles. These shapes shift and blend within the frame to create a sparse but dramatic context for the performers; the visual strength of Saura's film thus lies in its formal hybridity and adaptability, both of which are essential properties of flamenco.

Saura also uses light and shadow as key elements in the look of the film. Dancers enter into the light, then disappear out of it and encircle it. The line of their bodies and their responses to the beat of the music are rhymed with or used as counterpoint to the play of light and shadow on screen. Mirrors create a sense of depth: feet are seen close-up while the rest of the body is visible as a reflection. Camera angles are chosen to capture formations of dancers while never losing sight of the individuals involved; camera movements similarly respect the bodies, skills and co-ordination of the dancers and the gathering force of symmetry. The editing is co-ordinated not only with music but with line.

Aspects of star persona aren't forgotten in the staging either: Joaquín Cortés, arguably the biggest star in the film, is shot at a distance distinctly greater than that of the other performers. Though his trademark long mane and bare chest are visible, the camera, in emphasising the body in movement (through medium long-shots) rather than the individual performer, draws our attention away from Cortés' show-business persona and highlights his impressive talents as a dancer.

Flamenco is a music of the dispossessed. While the dance is capable of describing and evoking fiery passions, these intense feelings are more often about bread than sex. Songs here tell of hunger, betrayal, Jesus being turned away from the inn. Flamenco's wail often reminds people of American blues because it articulates emotional and social wants and yet, through its raw and abundant expressive power, it simultaneously seems to answer these wants: shared singing and dancing thus offer a magical compensation.

In keeping with the utopian sensibilities of many Hollywood musicals, Saura shows us old dancing with young, professional performers alternating with people seemingly off the street, the haggard and worn dancing alongside the sleek and well nourished. By the end of the film, all these individual dancers and singers come together in a dance that breaks through previous scenes of individual pain into a joyous sharing. The dispossessed are here seen to come together in a community of plenty, immediacy, transparency and energy. Saura doesn't skimp on the pain that gives rise to and finds expression in so much flamenco; but working with a troupe of some of its best practitioners, he transforms it into art, and thus into a kind of joy. It's simple but it is so in a way only great films can be - simply great.


Spain  Argentina  France  Germany  1998


Tango  Geoffrey Macnab from Sight and Sound

Buenos Aires. Mario Suárez, a middle-aged theatre director, is left holed up in his apartment, licking his wounds when his girlfriend (and principal dancer) Laura leaves him. Seeking distraction, he throws himself into his next project, a musical about the tango. One evening, while meeting with his backers, he is introduced to a beautiful young woman, Elena, the girlfriend of his chief investor Angelo, a shady businessman with gangster connections. Angelo asks Mario to audition Elena. He does so and is immediately captivated by her. Eventually, he takes her out of the chorus and gives her a leading role. An affair develops between them, but the possessive Angelo has her followed all the time.

The investors are unhappy with some of Mario's dance sequences. They don't like a routine which criticises the violent military repression and torture of the past. Angelo has been given a small part, which he takes very seriously. The lines between fact and fiction begin to blur: during a scene in the musical showing immigrants newly arrived in Argentina, two men fight over Elena. She is stabbed. Only slowly do we realise that her death is not for real.


In his autobiography, A Lifetime in Movies, Michael Powell writes about the idea of the composed film, in which music is the master, but is combined with emotion and acting to make a complete whole. Carlos Saura's Tango is just such a film. It relies far more heavily on colour, movement and music than on dialogue or characterisation. Like Powell's The Red Shoes (1948) or Saura's own, earlier dance movies (for instance, Blood Wedding or Carmen), it blurs the lines between rehearsal, real life and performance. And it is just about possible to trace a line between Powell's films and Tango. Late in his career, Powell worked as a consultant at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope where cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who has shot four of Saura's films) was one of the key technicians. Storaro's lighting of some of the interiors in Tango, complete with iridescent colours and dramatic shadows, rekindles memories of equally stylised sequences he lensed for Coppola's One from the Heart.

Tango is nothing if not self-conscious. Yet another womanising, middle-aged director, exorcising his own personal demons through his work, Tango's lead character Mario Suárez seems to have been borrowed directly from Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963). Miguel Ángel Solá, who plays him has the same crumpled charm as Mastroianni in Fellini's film. There have been countless other films about film-making and also many about tango (just recently, Sally Potter's The Tango Lesson, for example). Of all dances featured in the movies, it is easily the most common. Combining arrogance and sensitivity with raw sexuality, the dance originated in the slums of Buenos Aires in the late nineteenth century, but spread across Europe and the US like rampant syphilis. Saura (a Spanish film-maker) seems determined here to take the dance back to its South American roots.

A spellbinding but perplexing piece of film-making, Tango's storyline could be written on the back of cigarette paper - a director puts on a musical, just about sums it up. There are some misjudged moments: given the lack of social and historical context, the dance sequence showing brutal military repression seems out of place. Nevertheless, Saura manages to hint at the foibles and neuroses of his characters. As in all the best backstage/backscreen musicals, he shows up the tension between the artists and the investors backing them. Somehow, he also convinces us that Suárez (the name is suspiciously close to his own) really is going through some sort of midlife crisis. His voiceover is melancholy and poetic; he is, for all his grace and humour, intensely voyeuristic. When we see Elena, his beautiful new discovery, dancing with his ex-girlfriend Laura, we're in no doubt about his mixed feelings of lust, anger and jealousy.

Saura draws a subtle contrast between the febrile atmosphere at rehearsal, where every new routine seems as much a battle as a dance, and the documentary-style sequences showing the way tango is integrated into everyday Argentinian life. We see an old maestro (Juan Carlos Copes) dancing it with incredible grace and delicacy. At school dance class, a precocious young girl holds herself back rather than be paired with anybody else other than the oafish, big-footed boy she loves. Nevertheless, for all its technical polish and virtuosity, Tango has the roughness and spontaneity of a work-in-progress. There's a sense that the film-makers, like the dancers, are working on the hoof. That's what makes their efforts so exhilarating to watch - even when they do trip up.


Spain  Italy  1999


Goya in Bordeaux  Paul Julian Smith from Sight and Sound

Bordeaux, 1828. The 82-year-old Spanish artist Francisco de Goya is living in exile. His younger lover Leocadia and her daughter Rosarito, an aspiring artist, take care of him in his final illness; Goya himself is working on lithographs and socialising with fellow radical exiles. Over the course of the last months of his life, Goya recounts his life story to Rosarito. He recalls his entrance into the glittering Madrid court of the Bourbons, the illness that led to his early deafness, his love affair with the Duchess of Alba, who dies poisoned by conspirators, the French invasion of Spain and the Peninsular War. Meanwhile his major works, including his portraits for Charles III's court, the caprichos series of etchings, the Black paintings, and the Disasters of War series, are brought to life in on-screen tableaux. Finally Goya dies; his body is discovered by Rosarito.


Time has not been kind to Spanish director Carlos Saura. Spain's greatest film-maker during the final years of Franco's rule and the country's transition to democracy and the auteur of such oblique and resonant psychological dramas as Cría cuervos (1975), Saura was laid low in the 80s by the costly fiasco of his historical epic EI Dorado. More recently, he made Taxi (1996), a liberal-minded but routine thriller about neo-Nazi gangs in Madrid which showed little sign of his personal style, while his 1998 film Tango prompted Spaniards to ask whether he had progressed since his earlier dance tragedy Carmen (1983). Goya in Bordeaux, whose release in Spain inadvertently coincided with Volaverunt, Bigas Luna's lavish biopic of the artist, combines elements from Taxi and Tango. Saura, screenwriter as well as director, stresses the liberal credentials of his Enlightenment hero, who was fiercely opposed to tyranny; this political commentary is accompanied by an abstract and theatrical mise en scène whereby Goya's works are brought to life in startling tableaux vivants, a visual style familiar from the director's dance films.

It's an ambitious undertaking, especially given that the Spanish film industry is now dominated by coarse post-Almodóvar comedies, and the contrast between the naturalism of the historical drama and the stylisation of the aesthetic performance is sometimes jarring. Shot in the studio, with sliding screens on which the artist's works are projected, Goya in Bordeaux often evokes a fluid cinematic space analogous to the free-floating world of the artistic imagination. The expressionist lighting and colour of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Taxi and Tango) produce powerful graphic effects. For example, in the credit sequence the camera slowly tracks over sodden black earth and tilts up to a blood-red hanging carcass, whose entrails morph into the dying Goya's head. Images are often dense and multilayered: in one extended travelling shot the old Goya walks in front of a translucent scrim of prints from his caprichos series while the young Goya shadows his movements behind; it's an impressive sequence which aptly recreates the simultaneity of artistic experience.

But the problem with Goya in Bordeaux is that this visual dimension is more eloquent than the verbal element. Saura's dialogue is clunky, even clichéd. Such lines as "The spiral is like life," "Deafness left me isolated" and even "This will be a masterpiece" would not be out of place in a Hollywood biopic from an earlier era. Audiences, even in Spain, need to be reminded of the historical ironies of Goya's life, such as his early admiration of France which was later to invade Spain so brutally. But the presentation of these complexities is only fitfully integrated into the narrative. Moreover, the flashback format leads to longueurs and repetitions, leaving the viewer as frustrated and bewildered as the young girl to whom Goya recites his life story. The absence of narrative drive and characterisation (Maribel Verdú's Duchess of Alba, Goya's true love, is a cipher) makes the experience of watching the film akin to leafing through a de luxe volume of illustrations: these are visually sumptuous, often ravishing images but they fail to connect with each other or the spectator.

This is unfortunate because there is so much to like about Goya in Bordeaux. The shifting and shimmering mise en scène, based on montages, lighting effects and transparent panels, is an impressively realised collaboration between the director, cinematographer and art director (Pierre Louis Thévenet, best known for Almodóvar's High Heels). And the imagery never subsides into the clichéd Goya-esque. Catalan physical theatre group La Fura dels Baus, known for their visceral performance pieces, are ideally suited to act out the graphic sequence based on Goya's Disasters of War print series. José Coronado, now best known in Spain as the lead in top-rated television drama Periodistas, is assured as the young artist. Francisco Rabal, the fresh-faced señorito of Buñuel's Viridiana (1961), has long since become a grizzled veteran, his crown of white hair backlit here like a halo. Rabal performs with matchless pathos as the dying genius, even attempting some perilously dignified dance steps. But surely the hidden story of Goya in Bordeaux is that of Saura himself: a once brilliant and fashionable artist who is now out of favour in his own country.        


Spain  2004


Acquarello from Strictly Film School:


On an isolated pueblo in the heart of the Spanish countryside, the seemingly familiar story of fickle young love unravels to incomprehensible tragedy when the spurned lover, Luciana Fuentes, expresses a vengeful wish on her seducer in the presence of her fragmented, devoted brother Jerónimo who, in turn, executes his sister's wish, resulting in the young man's cold and brutal murder in an open field. Despite Jerónimo's capture and 30-year prison sentence, the shame on the Fuentes family still proves to be terrible burden as the townspeople continue to treat the siblings with open contempt and derision, culminating one day in a suspicious fire that engulfs the family home and escalates the deeply entrenched family feud. Publicly humiliated, forcibly driven out of town, and struggling with Luciana's delusional obsession over her broken engagement, the family's harbored animosity festers with each passing year, awaiting Jerónimo's release and pondering the inevitable day of reckoning against the community that had turned its back against them. From Isabel's retrospective opening monologue to the intimately captured innocence of the children's world, Carlos Saura evokes the provocative and trenchant social observation and disquieting mystery of his seminal film, Cría Cuervos while retaining the musicality and immersive passion of his later, cultural expositions to create a haunting and indelible work. Through the introduction of the slow-witted, drug-addicted witness - the child of an incestuous relationship - Saura illustrates an intrinsic parallel to the town's oppressive isolation and complicity that contributed to the perpetuation of the communal tragedy. Based on a true incident in 1992, the film is a thoughtful, potent, and incisive examination on the insidious nature of collective exclusion, intolerance, implicit collusion, systematic demoralization, and consuming vengeance.


Sautet, Claude



France  1960


(link lost):


After a job in Italy turns deadly, a career criminal, Abel Davos (the moody, hulking Lino Ventura), flees to his native France with his family in tow. His wife is killed in a shootout with border guards, and his old underworld friends can't help—but a new one, Eric Stark (a coolly sardonic Jean-Paul Belmondo), can. Hiding out in Paris, Davos needs a wad of money and one more great escape. The genre is the criminal procedural, and the intricate story comes from a novel by José Giovanni, himself a former criminal—but the whole film plays like a feature-length exposition for a one-shot ending. The director Claude Sautet's second feature, released in 1960, is the last best hope of the French Old Wave: the black-and-white images seem lacquered to a high gloss, and the script and performances are controlled to the vanishing point of reality. If its tight emotional modulations derive from several bracing coups de théâtre, the thick, unyielding atmosphere is broken by only a few coups de cinéma. In French.  Richard Brody



France  1993


(link lost):


A tale of love and violins, but don't expect "Intermezzo.'' Claude Sautet's film, as its title suggests, is not much of a heartwarmer; but its cool look at thwarted passion is enthralling nonetheless. Stéphane (Daniel Auteuil) makes and mends violins; Camille (Emmanuelle Béart) plays them. The two of them shift from distrust to desire to disappointment—in other words, they go through all the motions of love except the making of it. This is so restrained it's shocking; we feel the terrible pressure of all that Stéphane might do with his life and yet refuses to attempt. With his spirit as buttoned down as his shirts, Auteuil offers a startling portrayal of failure, never hamming it up for the sake of our compassion. André Dussollier turns in an equally quiet performance as Stéphane's business partner and rival in love; add Béart's immaculate poise, and you wonder what strange district of Paris this is, populated largely by emotional cripples. The movie will hardly blow your mind, but there's nothing precious here; Sautet builds up a needling tension, aided by fine renditions of Ravel at his most difficult and plaintive. In French.  Anthony Lane


Sauvaire, Jean-Stéphane


JOHNNY MAD DOG                                               B+                   91

France  Liberia  Belgium  (93 mi)  2008  ‘Scope


Southern trees bear strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,

Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop


—“Strange Fruit,” written byAbel Meeropol, recorded by Billie Holiday, 1939


In the opening ten minutes of this movie the audience witnesses child murders and a rape, where a family comes under the attack of young rebel forces, an armed band of roving children carrying heavy weaponry and shouting foul obscenities, searching for food, government soldiers, money, and other children to recruit, forcing the family to submit at gunpoint, which includes ordering a young pre-teen son to either shoot his father or be killed, a rite of passage many of them have experienced first hand.  Africa is a continent that knows continual strife from the everpresent eruptions of violent and bloody civil wars, where the worst African scenario involves the conscription of young children who are kidnapped by warlords or local militias and sent off to the front, usually hopped up on drugs carrying AK-47 assault rifles, oftentimes never seeing their families again as they have been killed and their villages burned during the many massacres.  One of the more controversial books written on the subject centers on the fighting in Sierre Leone, an autobiographical account written by a child soldier who was abducted at age 13 and is called A Long Way Gone:  Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah, though many have questioned the historical accuracy of a child’s recollections.  This movie was shot in Liberia without ever identifying a country of origin, as the director instead relies on the viewer’s familiarity with a history of horrific African atrocities in Rwanda, Liberia, or the Sudan.


This film is a searingly raw and graphically realistic docudrama that follows one band of rebel soldiers under the command of 15-year old Johnny Mad Dog (Christophe Minie), who serves ‘Colonel Never Die’ (Joseph Duo), a mythical warlord who has recruited and trained them all, a fierce disciplinarian who instills uniformity through repeated profanity-laced mantras that are memorized and constantly shouted back in unison, especially during raids, a kind of military call back that mimics boot camp behavior.  But most peculiarly, the children wear whatever they have collected and picked up from their raids, which amazingly includes a pair of angel’s wings on one soldier, a red T-shirt claiming “It’s Better in the Bahamas,” a Crucifix, a white wedding dress, colorful wigs, a crash helmet, and what appear to be strands of Mardi Gras beads around the neck of Mad Dog.  This rag tag crew, many of whom are themselves former child soldiers from Liberia, look dressed for a photo shoot before a break dance contest instead of guerilla warfare military attire.  To prepare them for battle, they are given an assortment of pep pills, most likely amphetamines and large doses of cocaine rubbed into their wounds to keep them wired, medicine that the children are led to believe will keep them invincible.  As they enter a nearby city, Mad Dog is ordered to take out and secure the state-controlled TV station, where the female news anchor is immediately terrorized and raped by two different rebel soldiers.         


There is a parallel storyline that includes Mad Dog’s chosen girlfriend that he calls Lovelita (Careen Moore), who he simply picks out of a group of fleeing civilian refugees, who is the closest thing to someone or something that he actually cares about, as otherwise these rebels show no regard whatsoever for human life and are in every sense of the word a terror organization, perhaps best expressed in a street scene with a young kid carrying oranges who they assume is an enemy soldier, and who they treat with full contempt.  As they move through the deserted streets openly chanting their victory songs, they are caught by sniper fire, a riveting scene reminiscent of Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET (1987), where they systematically track down the line of fire, firing off celebratory bullets into the air afterwards.  Simultaneously the camera follows the tragic storyline of 16 year-old Laokolé (Daisy Victoria Vandy), who tries to move her legless father and little brother away from the advancing rebel assault, who is continually seen walking through the perilously dangerous city streets, carrying her wounded father in a wheelbarrow to the United Nations hospital, eventually losing both, a prevailing theme in this adrenaline-laced portrait of a world gone mad, where there is no order but unending terror and chaos, where even if the rebels were to succeed, it’s inconceivable to even consider their capacity to lead, as they were designed to seek and destroy and have little use in the actual rebuilding of the country.  They are instead the haunting and tragic reminders of the ugly scars of war.     


Jackson Tennessee Fourgeaud's profoundly unsettling score casts a pall over the bloodbath of horrors, framing what we see in a new and different light, offering an anguishing perspective that respects both the living and the dead, where at one point a rebel soldier’s radio strapped to his back carries a Martin Luther King speech about the history and ramifications of slavery, making a strange historical connection to these young children of war who have been uprooted from their homes and severed from their families literally for centuries, always serving the agenda of larger unseen powers.  One of the more moving sequences is a seemingly spontaneous song that one soldier sings after the death of his fellow comrade.  The film is an unending stream of screams, chants, songs, taunts, and slogans, all signs of propaganda and uneducated youth, as they may not be able to read, but their choral chants can instill bone-chilling fear.  Surprisingly, the most profoundly moving segment is the end credit sequence, set to a quiet, searingly personal Nina Simone rendition of “Strange Fruit,” an achingly graphic portrait of a Southern lynching made famous by Billie Holiday.  This connection to the roots of the slave trade is particularly effective, as are the chilling archival photos of child soldiers dressed up for war, proud to be seen photographed on a roadside lined with lingering images of atrocities and death.   


Johnny Mad Dog Review. Movie Reviews - Film - Time Out London  David Jenkins

It’s something of a travesty that this sense-battering vérité war movie which follows a ferocious battalion of dead-eyed boy soldiers as they help to overthrow a tinpot dictator in an unnamed African state is being released on just three screens in London. Debut director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire shows all the technical moxie and in-your-face urgency of Paul Greengrass at his best, shooting the film in a clipped, docu-realist style that gives it the tension, the political profundity and the emotional wallop of even the classiest multiplex genre fare. Clad in dressing-up-box attire, including wedding dresses, fairy wings, wigs and crash helmets, this 15-strong unit of trigger-happy, pill-popping teens (all superbly brought to life by real Liberian youngsters, some actual ex-fighters) browbeat, exploit and murder all who stand in their way.

Like Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’, this is a film about the cultural influence of war: the vernacular, the attire, even the occasional sliver of dark poetry that can emerge from its dank recesses. The dialogue is made up almost entirely of patriotic clichés, machismo-fanning mantras and call-and-response chants. The film sees war as a deadener of moral and physical inhibition, a paradoxical state where there are no winners or losers, just the living and the dead. Stunning.

Johnny Mad Dog, review - Telegraph  Tim Robey

Imagine an African Lord of the Flies pulled off with the jittery expertise of The Hurt Locker, and you’re only some of the way to grasping what’s in store in Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog. Shot in Liberia, and inevitably calling to mind the civil war which brought about Charles Taylor’s expulsion in 2003, it’s not historically specific, and in fact never even names its setting: but these child soldiers, with their outlandish borrowed garb and expletive-riddled patois, could come from nowhere else. One flaunts a pair of fairy wings; another, in someone’s just-evacuated bedroom, tries on a wedding dress for size, and is pleased enough to desport himself in it for most of the running time. What gives a surreal edge to the air of make-believe are the summary executions going on outside.

Johnny (Christopher Minie) is the lieutenant of this particularly virulent little gang, about 15 strong, who imagine themselves freedom fighters against a hated President, though a sharp moment towards the end makes it clear that it’s virtually arbitrary which side they’re fighting on. They’ve been indoctrinated into a horrifyingly robotic mindset which makes rape and killing their main tools of power, working themselves up into frenzies of knee-jerk rage as they claw what they can from this wreckage of a nation, and anyone unlucky enough to cross their path.

Meanwhile, Laokolé (Daisy Victoria Vandy), a 16-year-old student in the capital, tries to escape the encroaching terror with her baby brother in tow, setting us up for a confrontation with Johnny which has the grippingly ideological edge of gender combat. Of all, things, I’m reminded of an Alan Bennett line: “History is women following behind, with a bucket.” In this instance, he might have added an Uzi.

If the movie sounds tough, it certainly is, but Sauvaire is resolutely responsible in shooting and cutting his way around the carnage: it often has a glancing, offscreen impact, or happens in long shots, so we feel how morally distanced these boys have become. Slaughter is their routine. The actors he found to fill the ensemble, including the unforgettable Minie, know the rituals all too well: many were child soldiers themselves during the 2003 atrocities, agreeing to these reenactments as a kind of therapy. Sauvaire is on record for overseeing their continued counselling through his Johnny Mad Dog Foundation. Any trace of exploitation is outweighed by how eye-opening and sobering, and close to unique, this film is. Cinema normally hides from truths this hard.

Johnny Mad Dog | Review | Screen  Jonathan Romney at Cannes from Screendaily, also seen here:  Johnny Mad Dog 

Cinema is forever inventing new ways to tell us that war is hell, but few recent films have explored the extremes of that hell as vividly or intrepidly as Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire's African drama Johnny Mad Dog. Shot in Liberia, with support from the Liberian government, the film is a terrifying, somewhat surreal story of child soldiers in that country's recent conflicts.

Shattering performances by unknowns, many of them actually former child soldiers, plus a confrontational directing style make this one of the most striking recent French fiction debuts. African-set stories are traditionally a tough sell, and its punishing brutality will deter some. But this will be a must at least for festival s, and an appealing attraction to niche buyers with an eye for the cutting edge.

Set apparently in Liberia - the location is never specified - the film follows a rag-tag detachment of under-age militia fighting in an African conflict. They are headed by an older General, Never Die (Duo), and have been trained over the years to be mercilessly brutal. For most of these boys, and the occasional female conscript, war is the only world they know. One teenager, Johnny Mad Dog (Minie), lost his family at 10, and has long since forgotten his real name. The detachment, kitted out in bizarre fancy-dress garb - fairy wings, wigs, hip-hop accoutrements, even a wedding dress - operate a ruthless shoot-on-sight policy, sometimes implemented on each other.

Their current mission, with Johnny as squadron leader, is to take over a city and help unseat the government. Meanwhile, a 13-year-old girl, Laokolé (Vandy), tends to her younger brother and their legless father. The film gradually brings Johnny and Laokolé together, positioning them as opposing forces of catastrophe and redemption in African society; a startling conclusion proving that Sauvaire has nothing quite so schematic in mind, but it offers at least the possibility of hope.

Sauvaire gives us some of the most terrifying and feral militia forces ever seen on film. The young soldiers rarely speak beneath a furious yell, terrifying their victims and barking out slogans and morale-boosting chants apparently culled from Vietnam movies. There's a certain Lord Of The Flies horror in the suggestion that these are still children at play in the most murderous way, their battle garb suggestive of a nightmarish carnival (end-credits photos of the real things show that this dress code is quite true to life).

The film is compelling from the start: Sauvaire's use of sound, disorienting framing and deliberately fragmented editing gives the film the urgency of recent mainstream war drama yet stands apart as very much an art film, stripping the action of any sensationalism. The predominant language is English, barked out with an edge of heavily-accented patois that make English subtitles necessary.

A terrific cast put their all into the action, all the more unsettlingly given that many of them have lived through these very horrors. Some will surely perceive an element of exploitation, unwitting or otherwise, in Sauvaire's recruiting these children to re-enact such atrocities; in fact a programme called the Johhny Mad Dog Foundation has been set up to help support the young actors.

Film review: Johnny Mad Dog | Film | The Guardian  Peter Bradshaw

Child soldiers - just like adult soldiers, only better. They're fitter, more agile, more fanatically ready to obey orders, as good if not better with weapons, only hazily subject to international law and crucially unencumbered with the adult's fear or indeed understanding of death. This is the world of Africa's infant warriors in Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire's intestine-dissolvingly brutal and thrilling film, coproduced by Matthieu Kassovitz and based on the 2002 novel Johnny Chien Méchant by the US-based Congolese author Emmanuel Dongala. We see a group of boys, aged between 10 and 15, each carrying an assault rifle, being psyched up for their rebel faction's glorious final assault on the capital, by being screamed at, by participating in the cult chanting ritual loosely copied from American war movies and finally by getting cocaine rubbed into their open wounds, so that its stimulant influence, directly ingested, will override the lack of food or sleep.

Until watching this, I had heard the words "child soldier" in a kind of Orla Guerin voice in my head, sorrowful and perplexed like everyone else by the image of tiny belligerents seen on the TV news, grotesquely tricked out with guns and attitude. They could not actually be like grownups on the field of battle, surely; it must be a case of propaganda posturing?

No. The power of this movie lies in persuading you that these children are entirely able to do the work of adults, including pillage and rape. Some of them have bizarre kiddy mannerisms: one has angel wings, another puts on the wedding dress of the woman whose husband he has just executed. But everything they do in the movie could easily be done by young men five or 10 years their senior. Cast adult actors in the roles, and it would not look like Dennis Potter's famous adult-child play Blue Remembered Hills. It would look exactly the same. When the child-soldier unit snaps into action in one scene, with ferocious discipline and cohesion, I realised that the movie it looked like was Saving Private Ryan.

Sauvaire's movie places the action specifically in 2003, in the dying weeks of the civil war in Liberia. Charles Taylor's government is on the verge of collapsing and the rebels are advancing, victoriously if chaotically, on the capital, Monrovia. Johnny Mad Dog, played by Christopher Minie, is the 14-year-old leader of his irregulars; the others have names like Small Devil and Jungle Rocket. Johnny's second-in-command is a bloodthirsty younger boy worryingly called No Good Advice, a name which he has presumably not earned by recommending endowment mortgages.

Their mission is to proceed through villages and towns, "holding positions" and terrifying the populace, pressganging all the children into their ranks and stealing food and money. They are tacitly permitted and even encouraged to execute civilians for weapon-practice and esprit de corps, and their other function is to draw the fire of snipers positioned by the retreating government army. They are beyond feral, kept in fighting mood by the propulsive rhythms of their chant, like a playground game in hell: "You don't wanna die? - Don't be born! - I make a face? - Stay away from me!" Yet they have teamwork and strategy.

Johnny's story unfolds in parallel with that of a teenage girl called Laokole, played by Daisy Victoria Vandy, part of the fleeing mass of civilians, but destined to come into contact with Johnny.

Laokole transports her maimed father in a wheelbarrow and must look after her little brother, too. She fatefully witnesses Johnny's unit brutally shooting a small boy. For a strange, subdued moment, Johnny and Laokole meet on a shattered staircase in a deserted building. They look into each other's eyes. From then on, something appears to have changed inside Johnny. When his unit brings a wounded soldier to a UN hospital, and the blue-helmeted guards won't let his heavily-armed crew inside, Johnny appears to lose his nerve, ordering a "tactical retreat" despite overwhelming superiority in numbers - to the astonished disgust of the other Lost Boys.

Is Laokole going to humanise Johnny? That would be too easy. Yet clearly something has happened, something to jolt Johnny out of the closed and murderously abusive world which has been his family since he was tiny. But jolt him where? Their final meeting, in the film's concluding minute, is very striking and the performances of Vandy and Minie are something to wonder at. Its resolution was perhaps a little contrived, but the film's sheer force is, however, unarguable. It packs a punch that goes right through your solar plexus and out through your shoulder blades. And it carries a nauseous message: child soldiers are horrible, but they are simply the evolutionary endpoint of war. They are the exception which is all but indistinguishable from the rule. War is brutalising, infantilising, dehumanising, requiring the unquestioning submission to authority. All soldiers are child soldiers: that is the bitterly cynical nightmare that Sauvaire's film insists upon to the very end.

Sight & Sound [Trevor Johnstone]  December 2009


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A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier - Wikipedia, the free ...


The feud over Ishmael Beah's child-soldier memoir, A Long Way Gone. - By Gabriel Sherman - Slate Magazine  Gabriel Sherman from Slate, March 6, 2008


Sayles,  John

Gavin Smith interviews Sayles from Film Comment:

Will the real John Sayles please stand up? Novelist, former B-movie hack writer, studio rewrite ace (most recently, Apollo 13), bit-part actor --but mainly independent filmmaker. Meaning what exactly?

The first generation of independents (Cassavetes, Warhol, Shirley Clarke, Maurice Engel, Robert Young, Robert Kramer) represented a distinct break with the classical values of mainstream U.S. filmmaking. Sayles's generation, the second (including Jost, Burnett, and Nunez), withdrew from the avant-gardism and cinéma vérité of the first, towards sociopolitical engagement and naturalism. They were free of the selfconsciousness and mannered styles of the third generation (Jarmusch, the Coens, Van Sant, Soderberg), and almost old enough to be fathers to most of the fourth (Kevin Smith, Tarantino, Hartley).

Unlike his peers, Sayles has found an autonomous niche between the studio major leagues and the indie minors. For him, the term "independent" surely has a political significance largely lost on or taken for granted by the next two generations. In fact, many of his films have internalized it thematically --the social and/or personal struggles in Lianna ('83) and Matewan ('87) are explicitly about gaining independence; his films ponder and problematize the relationships of individual/community and personal/social; and there's always an underlying dynamic between idealists seeking freedom and pragmatic realists who have attained a measure of independence. That last is worth noting because, as a filmmaker, Sayles himself is strikingly pragmatic, tailoring his screenplays and style to the resources available to him.

Indeed, Sayles's sensibility is, in the first place, a practical and organizing one (it's significant, I think, that he edits his films himself). Taken along with his flair for considered, critical reworking of narrative and social conventions, this may explain something: the curious dispassion and objectivity of his films. The risk-taking is discreet, embedded in the writing --there's rarely any nerviness in the directing, any feeling of a director getting carried away with the medium. Until recently, his films have been mainly prose, lacking in poetry. They can be compelling and moving, but for someone whose career began on the wild fringes of Corman exploitation flicks, Sayles is surprisingly respectful of filmic decorum and good taste. I miss the disreputable vitality and juicy, sardonic humor of his screenplays for Lewis Teague's Lady in Red ('79) and Alligator ('80) and Joe Dante's The Howling ('81). Ever since, apart from Passion Fish ('92), Sayles puzzlingly seems to have largely denied his innate sense of humor, while the comedic aspects of The Brother from Another Planet ('84) feel flat and labored. Nearly twenty years on, Sayles's scripts for films like Piranha (Dante, '78) exemplify the subversive potential of the pulp/exploitation/genre tradition. But like "independent," "exploitation" too has its own undeniable political significance, and having mastered this brand of fast-and-loose storytelling, Sayles turned away to more earnest, well-meaning --but at times impersonal --subject matter, and more quiet storytelling registers: Return of the Secaucus Seven ('80), Lianna, and Brother from Another Planet all shun or downplay the traditional principles of overt conflict and tension as narrative mainsprings. Is David Thomson correct when he writes, "There is an emphatic integrity to Sayles --it may be his greatest limit as an artist"?

Sayles was formed by the left ideals of the Sixties, but began making films at the dawn of a reactionary era. Secaucus Seven, still one of his best, takes stock of the diminished expectations and adjusted ideals of a group of former radicals; it gives flesh to the credo, "The Personal Is Political." Sayles's finest films are more concerned with messy journeys towards self-honesty and personal truth than with the struggle for social and political justice: the former makes the latter possible. And community matters to Sayles both as a subject and in terms of filmmaking practice --over the years, like Altman and Hartley, a stock company of regular collaborators has remained a constant: producer Maggie Renzi, composer Mason Daring, actors David Strathairn, Joe Morton, Gordon Clapp, and many others.

The trajectory of Sayles's work is one of progressive outward expansion from private to social realms --the intimate studies of personal self-discovery of the early films increasingly share screentime with wider social problems, from Brother from Another Planet on. Matewan (Sayles's first truly visceral film, and an important one artistically) and Eight Men Out ('88, a film too encumbered by schematic exposition) are historical/political chronicles, and what they gain in scale they to some extent lose in character dimensionality. But the multicharacter civic drama City of Hope ('91) strikes a remarkable balance between the two by the device of conflating personal and social crisis. From City of Hope on, all Sayles's films are about processes of recovery and reconciliation.

His newest, Lone Star, represents a breakthrough to a new artistic level. Its complexity and range are novelistic, and the film marks his most fluent and lyrical use of the medium. A Tex-Mex mystery/civic drama with Oedipal overtones, reminiscent of Bertolucci's The Spider's Stratagem, it concerns a smalltown sheriff whose investigation into the 40-year-old murder of the town's notoriously corrupt then-sheriff brings to a head his unresolved emotional conflicts with his dead father, another town law-enforcer of legendary stature. With an ambitious subplot set in the black community and the peacetime military, which rhymes with and echoes the main action, Lone Star manages to be at once a classical American drama of unreconciled family passion and an acute post-Bell Curve commentary on the racial stratification and cultural conflicts of contemporary American society. It may be Sayles's best film yet, and it's essential viewing. --G.S.

You've always talked about your work in terms of storytelling. In Lone Star you're examining the role of storytelling in shaping society's sense of itself.

Yeah. You know, history has the word "story" in it, and the main thing I was thinking about in writing the movie was: "What do we need history for, what do we use it for?" And that's history both in the kind of larger social sense of "Remember the Alamo," but also personal history. At what point do we say, "Okay, you can't blame history". Chet [Eddie Robinson] says at the end [of Lone Star], "My father says you have to start from scratch and pull yourself up from there" --which isn't true. Nobody does that. Everybody starts with some kind of handicap or advantage, and that's their personal history. And [there's] also social, group history. I was interested in the way those two things interact. But also, is there escape from that?

What about the moment in the film when Sam (Chris Cooper) talks about how his story is over?

Both Pilar [Elizabeth Pe–a] and Sam are people on the verge of accepting that they blew something. Sam is 40, and he's realized that he doesn't want to be sheriff, that that was something he had to deal with about his father, not something he wanted to do. Sam is trying to deal with a father who's dead, and Del [Joe Morton] is trying to deal with a father who's alive. Sam is going back into the past, digging the deepest, in a way. On the other hand, Del's son is looking for roots. But he's got the live museum, he's got Otis [Ron Canada], the grandfather, there. And it was very purposeful that I have Otis be a guy who's into this Seminole history stuff, and that their big talk finally be in front of a museum exhibit. It's about roots.

There's a positive side to remembering that stuff. A last line in the picture, which I once considered for the title, is "Forget the Alamo." For Pilar and Sam, to have their relationship --there is an extent to which romantic love is antisocial. Not marriage, which is very social. That's when you make it public, and say, "Okay, we're going to live in the community, we're going to follow certain rules, we're now allowing the rest of the community into our relationship." It's why a lot of people get along fine until they get married. It's a social contract, whereas this romantic love Sam and Pilar have is automatically antisocial. So, at the end they have to say, "Forget what society thinks --we are going to do this thing together." So, there is also that sense that sometimes what you have to do is just forget history; you have to escape it.

How did you approach structuring Lone Star? How did the Del-Otis and army subplots emerge?

When I write, having been an actor, I go through and play every part, and say, "Is there a three-dimensional character here? What are the connections between this character and the rest of the story, and can I have more than one connection, thematically and just in terms of plot?" So what tends to happen in my movies is that the secondary characters start moving forward and become primary. The average Hollywood movie foregrounds the stars, and everyone else is basically an extra. I remember telling the actors in City of Hope, "Look, we're doing these mastershots, and, yes, you wander off camera, but you have to wander off camera with the energy and knowledge of what you're going to say next, so that if the camera followed you we would have a story. Each one of you, no matter what your piece in the puzzle is, we have to feel like that's a story worth following. And the movie could be about just that."

As Lone Star started to evolve, I wanted to have these three communities; we were basically in a part of Mexico that somebody had drawn a line underneath and made into America, but the people hadn't changed. The Anglos got to run things, but it was still basically a Mexican town. And where do the blacks fit into that? Well, they're kind of mercenaries in this case. A lot of that thinking came out of the Gulf War. I saw, on television, black men and women being asked, "So, what was your part, why are you here, what do you think of this war?" and time after time I heard, "This was the best job I could get." Then I started seeing a lot of interracial couples, who were married and in the army. And I realized, here is what used to be, only a few years ago, one of the most racist and retrogressive parts of society, now being the place where even though it's about going and killing other people, there seems to be a certain degree of equal opportunity. Or if not equal, better than in the free market. You can move up as long as you're willing to be the Ariel of the piece, as long as you're willing to be the mercenary, the hired gun.

So I knew the social thing first --that I wanted a ruling class that was having to give up the reins and the Mexicans, who are taking over the reins. And then I wanted there to be this mercenary class. The black people would be an enclave, one small neighborhood and an army base --these artificial little worlds. The driving narrative is this murder mystery, but I also wanted, in each of those groups, to have a personal story that was important.

And then I basically had the idea, "Well, what if Otis isn't just this guy who's seen it all and owns the roadhouse, but has something to deal with, which is a live son." It also interested me because it's more moving. Sam's dealing with a father who's dead --it's history, and there's something always slightly removed about history. There's nothing we can do about history. We can learn what really happened. His father's dead. He can't change that relationship. He can change how he feels about it, but he's not going to have that scene with Dad or anything like that. But if Otis, this bar owner, has a son, and they've had this totally chilly nonrelationship for years, and now they have to deal with each other, that's got to be more moving, because it's immediate.

Lone Star has the most complicated narrative articulation so far in your work. Sam's role is to assemble this story from a series of witnesses, a story he becomes the protagonist of.

In my novels I can deal with multiple points of view. With any history you have to factor in who's telling the history and how they see the world, what's their agenda. If they're obsessed with father-and-son relationships, it's going to be all about fathers and sons. If they're obsessed with great men, it's going to be a Great Men history. One of the ways I try to get out of that in my fiction is by usually having a very large-cast canvas, with maybe fifteen, twenty-five points of view. Each chapter will be written in a different point of view, not in first-person but third-person. Every once in a while there's a little bit of omniscience. When we are in the scene with a person, the style of the writing changes according to who that person is and what they see. They often reappear as just a character in somebody else's point of view, in the next chapter or six chapters down.

Whereas in movies, it's very difficult to get away from three principal points of view --difficult for the audience to follow, difficult for the filmmaker to do. There's the omniscient point of view, which is kind of the wide shot. And then there's the protagonist point of view, which I always think of as a Halloween movie: the person looking around in the corners and hearing little creaky noises and being worried, or being inside a closet when the chainsaw rips through it. And then there's the antagonist's point of view: the guy in the hockey mask, looking for the victim. Rarely can you get away with a movie with more than those three points of view and have the audience still follow. It's just tough, you know?

Lone Star withdraws from omniscience into a more subjective reality.

Because it's involved with history, I wanted to keep that idea that the answers he's going to get will always be influenced by the person who's telling them --like Citizen Kane, where the faceless quester keeps getting a little bit more complete a picture of Kane because a different person knows a different side of him. Kind of like The Secret of Roan Inish ['94], where the grandfather and the crazy uncle are telling stories, I wanted there to be that guide who starts you into the story. And then you get into it, and you live it immediately. I wanted there to be that little residue of somebody watching.

So when we see Aladia Cruz killed, we cut away to the guy who started the story, hiding under the bridge. And that's where his story is coming from --a witnessed murder. When Hollis [Clifton James] and Otis tell the story at the end, Otis introduces it, but when we come out of it Hollis is also telling the story, so we start changing points of view within the telling of it. When you see the closeup of the gun firing, the one that kills Charlie Wade [Kris Kristofferson], there's one shot of it shooting left and there's another shooting right. The audience doesn't know what direction it's coming from. Two people, different points of view.

Your use of fluid transitions in and out of the past suggest a kind of magic-realism style. Were they all written in from the start?

Yeah. I wanted the past, those stories about his father, to be so much more present than when you play the harp and do the lap dissolve. Because Sam is still about the past; as quiet as he is, he is still an other-directed individual. He carries his father thing with him, mostly in a resentful way --he has to live under this guy's shadow. Same thing with the transitions from piece to piece in City of Hope --they were all written as well. You don't cut to another part of the room; you are brought to another part of the room, and then the camera just wanders off with a new group of people. It's about people thinking that they are in these little enclaves, but they really are stuck together. What they do affects somebody else, even if it's like you send your kid to private school, instead of public school --it may seem very personal to you, but it is a political act whether you like it or not. That was the point of City of Hope, and I wanted that feeling of "We don't have to cut." A cut is very much a tear. You use a cut to say there's a separation between this thing and that thing. And so in Lone Star, I didn't even want a dissolve, which is a soft cut, I didn't want that separation if I could avoid it.

Could you talk about the significance of the titles City of Hope and Lone Star?

City of Hope can be taken literally or it can be taken ironically. So much of it is about believers and cynics. The character I play, for instance, is a cynic. I only play characters who don't change throughout the movie, because I just don't have the time to do the actor work, of knowing where I am if there's a character shift throughout the movie, from scene to scene. If Joe Morton's character says, "I want to make this a city of hope," you believe it. If the mayor, who is a cynic, says it, it's ironic. A city of hope according to him is a city where you take everything that's not nailed down and then you leave the blacks and Hispanics to fight over what's left. That's real politics, patronage politics when it goes bad. What is interesting is that people had two reactions to the movie. People would either say, "I felt like some people are lost, and some people find themselves, or you feel like they're going to make it," and then other people said, "Wait a minute, where's the hope in this movie?" It's the same movie --it's a litmus test. It's how do you see the world? These very same scenes, are you hopeful or are you hopeless?

Lone Star's title has an immediate visceral thing, and then there's the historical thing. Sam is very much the loner in the Western tradition. It's kind of like High Noon, the man against the town --that's how he sees himself. By the end, what you hope is that he doesn't see himself that way anymore. He's starting to reintegrate himself in society. "I've got to leave you people alone with your legend." Texas was the Lone Star State, before they were part of the Union, after they had kicked the Mexicans out. They were a republic. Because they had their eye on becoming part of the United States, they said, "We're going to be the Lone Star --the individual that is eventually going to join the society."

At the time it came out, I felt City of Hope was a sort of response to Do the Right Thing. There was also a strong influence from TV's Hill Street Blues.

Sure they were. In the case of Do the Right Thing, which I liked quite a bit, I felt like this is a complex situation seen from one block. And I felt some of the characters were one-dimensional. The cops, for instance: Many of my older relatives are cops, both my grandfathers were cops. I kind of know a little bit more, and care a little bit more about where they're coming from. And they don't say, "Let's get in the car and beat some black people up." I want you to tell me where they're coming from, and also what they're getting. The question is, is it that the edgy guys choose to be cops, or is it that after three years of being a cop, you become that way?

Do the Right Thing was a great microcosm; City of Hope is an expanded microcosm. It's not national, but it is citywide --it's not just that neighborhood. Spike did a great thing, which was to get it down to that block, which looks like a set the way that Ernest [Dickerson] lit it. It could almost be a play, set in the pizza shop. People could come in and report the scenes. And you could have more scenes in the booths and all that kind of stuff. The riot could be in and outside of the thing.... It was influential in my thinking, but City of Hope was a story I've been thinking of doing for twenty years. A city thing, that was about all the levels of the city, and how it's connected.

The Hill Street Blues thing is kind of unavoidable. I liked that show, but I didn't get to see it very much --I basically am not a regular TV watcher. What I liked was that it was much more realistic about the way that police work, detective work, don't just have one case. Something comes up on a case that happended two weeks ago --that's ancient history. There's not that dramatic focus on one thing.

When you made Return of the Secaucus Seven, did you have a model?

Yeah, it's one movie where the philosophy was "I want to make a movie myself. I may only get to do it once in my life. So, yes, it is an audition piece, but on the other hand, this may be the only time I get to do this. So why make somebody else's movie?" Which is why I didn't make a story about an ax murderer in a haunted house. It's not what I want to spend a year of my life doing. Even though the ax murderer may have been a quicker ticket to getting to direct movies. I always say I was catapulted from total obscurity to relative obscurity. I had x amount of money: $40,000 in pocket. Who can I get to be in this movie? Well, I know all these actors who are not in the Screen Actors Guild yet. Well, they're all 30. I'm not going to be able to move the camera, I just don't have the time and I'm not going to be able to get an experienced crew. Nowadays you could, because everyone's gone to film school. But in those days, our crew were people who had shot 30-second spots for TV in Boston. They'd done commercials. The model was basically Nashville. And that came out my not so much saying, "This movie is going to be like Nashville in spirit or anything," but saying, "If I can't move the camera, how can I have any movement? Well, it'll have to be a cut. What motivates a cut?" And in Nashville, a million subplots motivated the cuts. I'll always have a reason to cut if I'm going to another subplot.

Had you seen Cassavetes's films at that point?

Yeah, and those were very influential --not what they were about, but more in that you could have recognizable human behavior on screen. And the fact of Cassavetes's movies, that here was a guy who took the money that he made in a different part of the industry, and he put it on the table and he made his own movies. That was a great precedent to have, the possibility of those movies. That I actually saw them in a theater. It was not easy for him to get them distributed, but he got them distributed. There were other movies besides his where there was recognizable human behavior, but usually it was movie behavior. When people leave the theater I want them to be talking about human beings, about their own lives and the lives of other people they know or could know. Rather than thinking, "Oh, that was like Citizen Kane" or "That was like Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Richard Armstrong from Senses of Cinema:


Walter Chaw, Film Freak Central:

John Sayles Interview by Leonard Maltin


USA  (110 mi)  1980


All Movie Guide [Michael Betzold]

Iconoclastic writer-director John Sayles made his first impact in 1980 with this less commercial predecessor to The Big Chill (1983). Both films are about a group of radical friends from the 1960s who get together for a reunion some years later. In Lawrence Kasdan's 1983 hit, the principals are sliding into Yuppiedom. In Sayles's low-budget account, the characters are more realistic, their quandaries somewhat less dramatic, and the politics and dialogue less trendy. As would be his habit in future films, Sayles plays one of the parts himself. Thoughtful and rich in characterization, like his films to come, Return of the Secaucus Seven made few concessions to mainstream commercial movie-making, focusing instead on a low-tech, realistic, improvisational mood of affection mingled with regret.

Time Out

A motley group of '60s survivors reunite ten years on in a New Hampshire cottage to mull over the implications of reaching thirty - shuffling counter-culture nostalgia and fragmenting future perspectives between themselves during a weekend of low-key stocktaking, love-making and laughter. Sayles' fascinating debut as a writer/director, produced independently on the modest earnings from his witty genre screenplays for Roger Corman, returns him to the naturalistically observed world and characters of his fiction. Intelligently applying the virtues of necessity, Sayles concentrates on dialogue and editing to construct a spider's web of intricate personal politics and emotions, and a warm, unmannered comedy of character and connections. No amens, no emblems, and no excess; just a variant on Alain Tanner's Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 which laughs with its 'greened' Americans rather than at them.

DVD Savant [Glenn Erickson]

After making a splash with several smart genre scripts for Roger Corman movies, John Sayles showed further ambition by making what some have called the first modern independent film, an artist-initiated, character-driven personal movie. Return of the Secaucus 7 re-ignited the regional talent film and gave Sayles a good start as a director.

MGM's DVD features the first decent-looking version I've seen of this 16mm show, coupled with a don't-miss John Sayles commentary and an interview short subject.

A Vermont town is the site of a reunion of some good friends who were 60s activists and now, ten years later, are doing okay but haven't set the world on fire. Mike Dawnly (Bruce MacDonald) and Katie Sipriano (Maggie Renzi) are high school teachers; J.T. (Adam LeFevre) is a guitar-playing quasi-vagrant, Frances Carlson (Maggie Cousineau) an intern, and Irene Rosenblue (Jean Passanante) a sentator's speechwriter. Just busted-up but arrived anyway are Maura (Karen Trott) and Jeff (Mark Arnott), and locals Ron Desjardins (David Strathairn) and Howie (John Sayles) get into the act as well. The weekend in Dawnly's tiny house is a forum for discussions on the past, present and future, and a game of Who's Sleeping with Whom?

Return of the Secaucus 7 was a grainy mess on theater screens in 1980, when we were more interested in a reasonable film about characters we identified with, than technical perfection. It's an unembellished job of direction for the first-time-out Sayles, straightforward and never clumsy. Sayles calls the film an outgrowth of his Little Theater experience, and the performances are also a bit on the uneven side. Sometimes the characters seem a bit forced, but more often than not we believe them completely. Sayles' script, a 90-minute talkathon, shows his gift for natural gab and is the strongest part of the show ... Sayles-as-director hasn't yet achieved the self-assurance that distinguishes his later work, but his movie is still an impressive achievement.

Sayles manages to sketch characters that come off as approximations of real people even as they examine each other's ideas and dreams. The host couple attempt to figure out where everyone will sleep when they can't remember who the old and new couples are. The speechwriter hopes her friends will accept her boyfriend, who is rather square compared to the others. An aimless singer-songwriter beds a newly broken-up friend, not knowing her partner of five years will soon arrive. And the locals provide a lifestyle contrast - children and responsibility - that the unmarried couples regard with awe and fear.

Sayles has a great sense of humor but he keeps his couples' adventures down to Earth - nothing sensational happens, really, and even when two competing guys clash over a girl, there's no fistfight or anything. The gang plays at charades, attend a bad local comedy, play basketball and go skinny dipping, without anything 'dramatic' to intrude on their self-examination. The highlight, of course, is when they're run into the hoosegow for suspicion of shooting a deer. When asked for their police records, they rattle off an impressive string of anti-war arrests in the years '69 - '71 that show what they used to be.

The best thing about this group is that they're like people we might know. Unlike the oft-compared The Big Chill, none have become Yuppified, nor movie stars, nor are into complicated wife swapping, backed up by top-40 hits of the past. The Secaucus 7 are too close, and too realistically ordinary for such nonsense.

The cast is good, and if some of the performances are uneven, it's probably because of Sayles' inexperience or lack of time, because nobody sticks out as a consistent bad actor. Maggi Renzi is frequently hilarious, even if her nasty remarks at the play don't ring true. Adam LeFevre is excellent as the wandering singer who knows darn well how poor his chances will be in the California music industry. Maggie Cousineau's doctor gets it on with the local gas pump boy David Strathairn, and after all her talk about the shallow medics she meets, we believe it. The director saves himself a few good moments as a guy who appreciates his family even though it is a heavy responsibility.

Alternative Film Guide [Dan Schneider]


DVD Verdict [Bill Gibron]


Fulvue Drive-in   Chad Eberle


Film Threat [Bob Westal]


Edinburgh U Film Society [Stephen J. Brennan] [Rob Gonsalves]   Deborah Nicol


digitallyObsessed! [David Krauss]


Film Freak Central Review [Walter Chaw] (capsule review)  from The Films of John Sayles


The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray]  one of 4 featured Sayles films



USA  (110 mi)  1983


PopcornQ Review  Jenni Olson

John Sayles's lesbian coming-out drama offers a sensitive, if slightly dated, portrayal of an academic housewife's sexual awakening. Lianna has its share of flaws (as do most lesbian coming-out films of the '80s), but Linda Griffiths's portrayal of the titular lesbian shines through. And Rex Reed called it "100 times better than Personal Best."

Time Out

Sayles is spokesman for his generation, the babies of the post-war boom who made love and fought their wars within themselves. Their growing pains came late: Lianna (Griffiths) is thirty, married and the mother of two, when she falls in love with Ruth (Hallaren), her night-school teacher. Sayles sympathetically maps the hurricane-like effects of this on Lianna's life - thrown out by her philandering husband, cold-shouldered by her straight friends, stormy scenes with her lover - his sparkling dialogue illuminating every aspect of Lianna's sexuality with a zeal that is almost proselytising. The love scenes are infused with a tender erotic glow that deepens the shadows around the titillation of Personal Best, and the comedy in Lianna's post-coital glee as she cruises other women and announces herself as gay to people in launderettes is irresistible. A gem, rough-hewn by Sayles and polished to perfection in peerless performances. - Lesbian and Bi Women in Entertainment

Written and directed by John Sayles, Lianna (1983) is a refreshing and realistic view of a woman’s coming-out process.

In the beginning of the film, the title character Lianna (played by actress Linda Griffiths) is stuck in a borderline-abusive marriage with her husband Dick (John DeVries). Years ago he was her college professor, and she dropped out of school to marry him. They now have two children and live in suburban New Jersey, where Dick teaches film courses and occasionally sleeps with students. Lianna is unfulfilled in her role as a faculty wife, and when Dick is out of town, Lianna begins an affair with her psychology night class professor, Ruth Brennan (Jane Hallaren).

Although Ruth, like Dick, is older than Lianna and they have an unequal power dynamic, Ruth is opposite to Dick in many ways. Lianna is attracted to her maturity, sympathy, and kindness, whereas Dick is controlling and condescending. This is Lianna’s first time with a woman, but she isn’t particularly surprised or afraid of her feelings. She acts around Ruth much the same way a teenager would act with her first love; full of desire, elation, and endless enthusiasm. It is completely different from her restrained, cold, and unhappy relationship with Dick. Lianna’s relationship with Ruth completely changes her life, in both difficult and wonderful ways.

One of the biggest challenges stemming from her affair is that Lianna must now learn to adapt to a new, independent lifestyle. When Lianna tells her husband about the affair, he orders her to leave their house and kids, even though she has always been the primary caregiver, and even though he has been unfaithful to Lianna many times. Lianna is shocked and enraged.

LIANNA: Why are you being this way?
DICK: You’ve given me the perfect escape route, honey. I’m taking it, that’s why.
LIANNA: You fucker, you prick.
DICK: That’s it, Lianna, let it all out.
LIANNA: You always have to win, don’t you? And if you lose, you make the other person lose more.
DICK: Very good, your psych classes are finally paying off. It must be all that private tutoring.

Because Dick argues with cruel intensity and the laws are on his side, Lianna agrees to leave her family. Faced with her children’s pain and the brutal uncertainty of the future, Lianna says goodbye to her children. It is a heart-wrenching scene that is delivered with raw sadness; that Lianna must leave her children is perhaps the most painful aspect of the film. We know the suffering that results from this action will probably take a lifetime for Lianna, and also her children, to overcome.

Living apart from her family, Lianna must now find her own means of survival. She has never been completely independent, and when she leaves her husband and kids, her first instinct is to get help from Ruth. But Ruth is upset that Lianna has left her family for her, and when she later confesses to having another woman in her life, their relationship becomes strained.

Lianna faces lonely days and nights in her small apartment with no one to turn to but herself. Her best friend Sandy (Jo Henderson) reacts with shock and fear at Lianna’s lesbian relationship, and the close friends distance themselves from each other as Sandy tries to make sense of her friend’s new identity. Lianna, in turn, focuses on Ruth and her unexpectedly difficult and solitary existence.

Lianna feels sorry for herself, but only for so long. The challenges she is faced with ultimately make her a stronger person. She becomes active in making her new place her own, making new friends, and mending old relationships. She fixes up her shabby apartment, makes friends with her neighbors, and with mixed success, she reaches out to her two children and to Sandy. She starts spending time at the local gay bar as she becomes more comfortable identifying as a gay woman. Her initial uneasiness identifying with lesbian culture thus transforms into pride and a positive sense of identity and self-worth.

Lianna’s transformation from an unfulfilled, self-sacrificing wife to an independent, self-aware woman is the heart of this film. Lianna’s affair not only gives her a passionate love for someone else; in the end, it also brings forth a deeper sense of self-respect.

Linda Griffiths is powerful in her quiet portrayal of a woman undergoing life transformation. Her understanding and delivery of the character are what make the film work. The supporting actors are also well cast and add human strength, pain, and tension to the film. Director Sayles brings comic relief to the story as Jerry, Dick’s sleazy co-worker who hits on Lianna but turns out to be a supportive friend.

Lianna was restored to DVD in the Fall of 2003. It is impressive because it’s an early 1980’s film that treats lesbianism positively and realistically. The more sympathetic and likeable characters in this film come to treat lesbianism as something normal, and the film portrays lesbianism as something necessary for Lianna, and those around her, to embrace and support if they are ever going to move forward and be happy.

An honest film that doesn’t pretend to offer easy answers to complex issues, Lianna's heroine is a woman whose strength shines through the entire film. From this character we learn the most important lesson of all: staying true to the self.

Lianna   Liberal Lesbianism, by Lisa DiCaprio from Jump Cut

Linda Lopez McAlister (c/o inforM Women's Studies)

DVD Savant (Glenn Erickson)


Film Threat, Hollywood's Indie Voice   Bob Westal (Sylvia Stralberg)


Goatdog's Movies (Michael W. Phillips, Jr.)


Film Freak Central (Walter Chaw) [Ben]


The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray]  also reviewing THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET and MEN WITH GUNS


Read the New York Times Review »   Vincent Canby



USA  (105 mi)  1983


Time Out


High school in New Jersey, 1966: she's en route for college and WASPdom, he's more concerned with miming to Sinatra and curling his lip the right amount at the teachers. As usual Sayles invests his subject with great care, and breaks with tradition by pursuing the pair into post-school life: the effects of hippy culture on her, of real life (washing up in Miami) on him. There is no easy moralising, nor any patronising of the characters; their reunion is as moving and hopeless as was their first love. Arquette and Spano hit exactly the right note; and having had Return of the Secaucus Seven recycled by The Big Chill, Sayles now outdoes the Chill with his own soundtrack (uniting Sinatra, Springsteen, Shirelles).


All Movie Guide [Brendon Hanley]

Though not John Sayles' best film, 1983's oft-forgotten Baby, It's You is an often poignant and original look at young love and the changing lifestyles of the mid-Sixties. For the only time in his career, independent film guru Sayles traded final cut for funding, and many viewers will blame this tradeoff for the film's occasionally faulty pacing. But Sayles is too good a writer and filmmaker for his movies to be anything less than interesting and ultimately gratifying. It turns out that the key that continually saves the castle is the intelligent and insightful performances from the two leads, Vincent Spano and Rosanna Arquette. 1983 was something of a breakthrough year (false, as it turned out) for Spano: besides Baby, It's You, he also had a noticeable role in Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish. Arquette would reach both a good amount of popularity and acclaim in 1985, with her three roles in Desperately Seeking Susan, After Hours, and Silverado. But, in Baby, It's You, they are at least as edgy and confident as they've ever been in their careers. You get the sense that it is not only the characters trying bravely to cut their way through life but also Spano and Arquette.

from imdb Author: Fern Iva (fivak) from New York, NY:

I always dreamed and fantasized about falling for a hood like Sheik. "Nice" girls who grew up in the 1960's and were in the honor society were supposed to achieve the questionable goal of marrying a nice boy who would earn well and buy us a nice house in the suburbs, where we would presumably have some nice children...

And this, in a word, is what lends "Baby, It's You" its poignancy. High school is the one place, the last place, in which the unlikely and all-too-temporary coupling of a female "achiever" bound for suburban "niceness" and the magnetic male "underachiever" bound for urban "unniceness" can occur. Sheik/Albert Capadilupo ("Is he an Arab?" "No, Italian.") embodies all the qualities that leader-type Jill Rosen has been told time and time again do not make a good, suitable husband or match or date: he disdains academic achievement, he is "good" with his hands, he drives fast, he has underworld connections, he knows how to kiss..and possibly how to do other things. Jill Rosen, in turn, has dreamy eyes, answers questions in class, gets good grades, and has ambitions of being something very much more than a "wife," qualities which fascinate and often infuriate Sheikh.

In the course of the movie, the on-again, off-again romance between them -which features all the quirkiness and unpredictability of most high-school romances, and then some- lights up, then sputters, then heats up again. My favorite movie scene of all time takes place when a sleepless maniacal Sheik barrels up US Route 1 from Miami in a series of stolen cars, then collars numerous shocked and amazed debutante types in the Student Center in order to locate Jill.

Free of sci-fi special effects or surrealistic flashbacks, this is a movie for people who love and believe in "romance" in the truest sense of the word - that one brief "Camelot"-like time when two people from different backgrounds and even worlds light up the world for each other, even though they sense it will end all too soon.

New York Times (registration req'd)  Janet Maslin

PLASTIC furniture covers. Baby-blue knee socks. A car with pushbutton transmission. Two teen-age girls in biology class, talking about their love life as they coolly dissect a frog. These and other well-chosen details of a 1960's adolescence are captured by John Sayles with characteristically witty precision in ''Baby, It's You,'' a love story that's as much about the era in which it's set as about the characters it follows.

Indeed, the time (early to mid-60's) and place (Trenton) of Mr. Sayles's film have a way of superseding the high-school lovers who are meant to be at the movie's center. Jill Rosen (Rosanna Arquette) and Sheik Capadilupo (Vincent Spano) happen to be strangely matched and self-involved even by teen-age standards, which is one reason the movie doesn't entirely work as a tale of obsessive romance. Jill is poised, popular, a little aloof and hoping to be a star performer some day; in line with this, she stars triumphantly in a high-school play and practices singing ''Stop! In the Name of Love!'' in front of the mirror in her bedroom. As for Sheik, he's a sharp dresser with a passionate devotion to Frank Sinatra. ''The way I figure it, there's only three people in the world that matter,'' he tells Jill early in their courtship. ''Jesus Christ, Frank Sinatra and me.''

Mr. Sayles's screenplay introduces these unlikely lovers in the school cafeteria and follows them long enough to make ''Baby, It's You,'' which opens today at the Coronet, feel more like two movies than one. In its second half, Jill has moved on to Sarah Lawrence, discovered marijuana, let her hair go wavy and become much less of a social success, yet somehow she's still in touch with this high school beau.

This would make more sense if she and Sheik had been on a firm footing in the old days, but their courtship begins as a very one sided affair. Sheik, who's got a nasty temper and absolutely no respect for the school's rules, virtually stalks Jill through the corridors until she begins to notice him. One way he attracts her attention is by slicking back his hair and wearing suits in the classroom, which certainly helps him stand out in the crowd. He is helped in these efforts by a loving Italian mama who dutifully irons his pants.

Mr. Sayles's teen-agers are a bit more rueful and knowing than most. They seem to be well on their way to becoming the thirtyish characters of ''Return of the Secaucus Seven'' or ''Lianna,'' two films in which Mr. Sayles demonstrated a surer sense of his characters than he does here. Jill, who is played crisply and confidently by Miss Arquette, fits more comfortably into Mr. Sayles's scheme, as a headstrong girl who begins to lose her bearings as the story moves on. But Sheik, though he's made powerful and sympathetic by Mr. Spano, seems perpetually ready to drift out of the movie entirely. When he moves to Miami and gets a job lip-synching Sinatra hits in a seedy nightclub, he seems to have passed the point of no return. But the film is determined to stay with him.

Music is a major part of ''Baby, It's You,'' as the title may indicate. The score consists of rock songs that more or less correspond to the time, although Sheik's entrances are accompanied by Bruce Springsteen songs; these may be anachronistic, but they suit Sheik to a T. These touches, as well as the generally impeccable period details and the evocative cinematography by Michael Ballhaus (who shot many of R.W. Fassbinder's later films), suggest that ''Baby, It's You'' was a labor of love for everyone involved.

eFilmCritic Reviews  Chris Parry


Movie Vault [John Ulmer]


Channel 4 Film [Mark Morris]


Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times



USA  (108 mi)  1984


Time Out


A mute, black extra-terrestrial fetches up in Harlem to be greeted first with bewildered hostility, then with a certain casual friendliness. The slim, episodic, but thoroughly enjoyable story shoots off like a firework in numerous directions: droll comedy among a group of cheery, bleary barflies; unforced intimations of a streetwise messiah as Bro's peculiar powers put paid to a drugs ring; delicate insights into Harlem's social mores, wrapped up in unpretentious fashion without a trace of stereotyping. Central to the film's deft balancing act between shaggy dog humour and something just a little more serious is Morton's expressive performance as the alien, though the rest of the cast also plays admirably.


not coming to a theater near you (Rumsey Taylor)

The eponymous Brother crash lands his spaceship in the Hudson River. The crash injures him (leaving him sans foot), he hops to the shore and finds a glimpse of Ellis Island. This action displays one of many clever situational puns in the film involving the Brother’s status as a literal illegal alien: although he has traveled from another planet, the end of his commute is identified in the same manner as European immigrants, with the archetypical image of the Statue of Liberty.

The Brother is perceptibly benevolent, dressed in unkempt foreign garb, and acquires leers from all parties as he moves about the bustling city. He has no concept, at first, of the implicit rules of human interaction, and will break most of them on his first day. It is not long before a policeman is chasing after him for a mundane theft he does not understand.

Difficulty of communication is the prevalent toll of emigration; in this scenario, the emigrant has no voice at all. Assimilation is the central topic here, as The Brother’s extra-nationality serves to distance him from everyone. It is never made explicitly clear why the Brother arrives on Earth (although it is implied he is some sort of fugitive slave), but the aspect of science fiction is incidental to the film’s sociology. The Brother is made curious by the human race, and his exploration is to the benefit of social introspection.

In keeping with John Sayles’ canon, The Brother From Another Planet possesses a distinctive, if sublime, political agenda. Because its principle character is an embellished creation, he serves to exaggerate peoples’ intolerance – fundamentally, he is the most removed of Sayles’ characters. As the title successfully implies, the film is like a cartoon, only with social concern in lieu of the comedy the scenario suggests.

Not Another Teen Neophyte [Vadim Rizov]


Somewhere between the flat character-study of Lianna (the first screenplay John Sayles wrote for his own use, rather than the exploitation purposes of Roger Corman) and the didactic mess of Matewan came this loosely connected (in narrative and time-frame) Harlem sketch, which nonetheless is superior to both those far more ambitious and cohesive efforts. Here, Sayles does have a social issue to push, namely the horrors of heroin addiction, but fortunately this doesn't dominate the proceedings the way issues, lesbianism and unions respectively, tended to dominate those other two efforts. The characters have space to breath beyond Sayles' agenda, and the result is a time-capsule classic in addition to a goofy little ultra-low-budget movie.
The Brother From Another Planet was destined to be far superior to Lianna the instant Joe Morton was cast in the lead and Ernest Dickerson was made cinematographer. Austin de Besche was cinematographer on that lesbian opus, and he quite appropriately quit being a cinematographer after it, following a mere 4 films in that capacity; if his shots don't suck, they were never more than utilitarian. Dickerson's canvas is brilliantly colored and always absorbing, although his only previous credit was Spike Lee's student thesis. Joe Morton is a perpetually underrated but commendably diverse actor whose success in conveying all his emotions and thoughts through body language and facial expression gets this movie at least halfway there.
The Brother (Morton) lands in front of Ellis Island after a fairly cheesy crash signified by primitive computer graphics allegedly depicting his spacecraft's technological capabilities - the first sign of dating in the film, not one minute in. Subsequently, a white flash blurs across the night sky in phony hastiness - the first sign of a low budget. Subsequently making his way to Harlem via a hitched boat ride, the Brother (totally human in appearance except for his 3-toed feet) settles in an apartment and begins fixing electronic equipment via, I kid you not, his ability to correct its circuitry by placing his hand on the object on question and having a little glow of light emitted from it. Meanwhile, since on his planet he's merely an escaped slave, 2 Men In Black come looking for him. They are Sayles and David Straithern, both apparently desiring to approximate the calculated stage weirdness of 80s-David Byrne. The resulting physical comedy is not to be missed, including a mock-martial-arts barroom fight (with posters for Bruce Lee's Game Of Death in the background), almost certainly the fleetest and most unexpected piece of slapstick to make its way into an indie film about social issues.
The real strengths here aren't represented by the single-mother monologue we're subjected to early on, nor the Brother's ultimate vengeance on a nervous white heroin dealer (the buildup to which is unclearly delineated). Rather, they are how well a time and place is captured, which appears to have been the goal in lieu of a social conscience. From the Casio vendor on the sidewalk to the stoned Rastafarian who monologues to a submissive Brother, Harlem is almost never left, and the result is richer for it. Rather than groping for profundity, Sayles lets his actors do the right thing. The results were criticized as unfocused and incohesive, but how can any portrait of a place in time this thorough (in the impression of completeness it leaves, in any case) be called disconnected? Remarkably shot (despite the distracting things done to cover up, unsuccessfully, the ultra-low budget, such as not showing a boy's scar which is subsequently healed by the brother; all we get is a healthy knee), with Sayles' trademark silences drawing attention to visual detail rather than their absence, it's a vibrant trip, a goofy yet socially aware film that, perversely, is far more relevant than a pro-union or lesbian film; the former is hellishly overstated, and the latter, despite the fact that it shows up far more frequently nowadays, has still not drastically improved in quality in many cases. This film, however, is one of the few peaceful and friendly "ghetto" movies. DVD review [James Plath]


The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review  Richard Scheib


DVD Talk (Gil Jawetz)   also including:  NOTE: Read Cinema Gotham's interview with director John Sayles.


Slavery motif in The Color Purple and The Brother from Another Planet   Ed Guerrero from Jump Cut


Stockholm Film Review : The Brother from another planet


And You Thought It Was Safe Review


Film Threat, Hollywood's Indie Voice   Bob Westal


The Sci-Fi Movie Page  James O’Ehley


Fulvue Drive-in   Chad Eberle (Chris Dashiell) (Rob Gonsalves)


That Cow (Andrew Bradford)


Ruthless Reviews ("potentially offensive")  Matt Cale


Film Freak Central (Walter Chaw)   from The Films of John Sayles


The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray]  one of 4 featured Sayles films


Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times


The New York Times (Vincent Canby)



USA  (135 mi)  1987


Time Out

A lone stranger arrives in town to unite the locals against the heavies with guns: a scenario familiar from countless Westerns. When the Stone Mountain Coal Company, which owns virtually everything in the West Virginian town of Matewan, reduces its workers' pay and begins employing blacks and Italians against the wishes of the local whites, ex-Wobbly union rep Joe Kenehan (Cooper) is sent in to overcome dissidence and prevent violent conflict with the armed strike-breakers recently hired by the company. But tempers run high, racial contempt is rife, and betrayal looms. Set in the 1920s, Sayles' marvellously gripping movie never compromises its political content in its deployment, or up-ending, of Western conventions. It possesses a mythic clarity, yet there's also a welcome complexity at work, in the vivid characterisations and the unsentimental celebration of community and collective action. The result is witty, astute, and finally very moving.

Jigsaw Lounge (Neil Young)


The true story of a 1920s West Virginia miners’ strike, pitting noble, multi-racial workers against their bosses’ psychotic henchmen. Rock-solid liberal Sayles hovers dangerously on the edge of didactic worthiness, before wisely heading down the dramatic Western route of black-hat baddies, tense standoffs and bloody gunfights on Main Street. He can’t quite shake the nagging ‘preaching to the converted’ air that so often marks his projects, but gives his typically well-chosen cast – featuring Sayles regulars David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell – space to create convincingly three-dimensional characters, with Will Oldham especially fine as a fiery teenage convert to the workers’ cause. American Beauty star Chris Cooper, then 36, makes a belated but craggily forceful movie debut as the idealistic union organiser – Matewan may fall short of his later Sayles collaboration Lone Star, but it’s an undeniably well-crafted, well-intentioned blast of anti-nostalgia. (Elaine Perrone)

Happily continuing what has become, for me, a mini John Sayles retrospective, I settled in with a treasured old friend, Matewan, Sayles's absorbing and exquisitely rendered recreation of the battles fought to bring the union to a coal mining town in 1920s West Virginia.

Matewan follows the vintage Sayles formula, depicting a large canvas of multi-generational, multi-cultural characters, most of whom are just basic, decent people struggling to make their way through lives compromised by their circumstances, diminished expectations, and the corruption going on around them.

In this case, the villains are the mining company's hired guns Hickey and Griggs (Sayles regulars Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp), and spy C.E. Lively (that always reliable snake-in-the-grass, Bob Gunton). The everymen/everywomen are the miners themselves, their wives, widows, and children (a large, and excellent, cast of Sayles regulars and semi-regulars, with standout performances by Mary McDonnell as Elma Radnor, the woman who runs the town's boarding house; David Strathairn as Police Chief Sid Hatfield; James Earl Jones as "Few Clothes" Johnson, leader of the Black scabs who are brought in to replace the striking local miners; and Will Oldham as Danny Radnor, Elma son, who is also one of the West Virginia miners and the town's softshell Baptist preacher).

Sayles himself has a cameo as Matewan's fire-and-brimstone hardshell Baptist preacher, and his long-time companion, Maggie Renzi, has a lovely supporting role as Rosaria, the wife of Fausto (Joe Grifasi), the leader of the Italian scabs, who, with their families, reside uneasily beside the displaced West Virginians.

One of my favorite "small" scenes, a knockout, features Renzi and Jo Henderson as Mrs. Elkins, mother of miner Hillard Elkins (Jace Alexander). In an environment in which the Italian, Blacks, and displaced Western Virginian families must stifle their animosities and share a camp, Mrs. Elkins offers Rosaria some bulbs for cooking, with the explanation that they are called "ramps." Not understanding a word of what has been said to her, Rosaria nonetheless conveys her perfect comprehension by taking the bulbs, breathing in their aroma, and murmuring, "E aglio" (it's garlic).

The heart and soul of Matewan is the quietly brilliant Chris Cooper, as Joe Kenehan, the union organizer who comes to aid the townspeople in their struggles against the injustices heaped upon them by the Stone Mountain Coal Company.

With its crackling good story, memorable performances, and the stunning cinematography of Sayles' frequent collaborator, Haskell Wexler, this astonishing little gem, for me, is, and always will be, like watching poetry: A MASTERPIECE.

Washington Post [Rita Kempley]

It's really no surprise when John Sayles shows up as a preacher in "Matewan," a mine-workers drama that becomes the filmmaker's Sermon on the Mount. Riddled with labor rhetoric, this coal-dusted tragedy wavers between well-acted propaganda and historical burlesque. Rambo's reactionism seems almost subtle by contrast.

Sayles bases his script on a 1920 shootout between oppressed West Virginia miners and company goons. He structures his story like an old-fashioned western, depicting his characters in the simplest of terms. They might as well be wearing white or black hats.

Sayles came across the story while researching his 1977 novel "Union Dues." The records, he says, were long on lurid metaphor from the left and rabid rhetoric from the company-controlled papers, but short on eyewitness testimony. Perhaps that's the reason the movie lacks humanity and its characters are so empty.

Shot in bleak, bituminous blues and set to the ballads of the hills, "Matewan" captures the countryside and the ancient, echoing spell of the worn-down Appalachians. It serves as a portrait of the people, with their ruined faces and their odd, isolated English. But it doesn't conjure the dark danger of digging for dirty ore, the hell of a life bent double and buried alive. Instead, it dramatizes a strike, the making of a local union and the miners as incipient union men. The miners have walked out of the Stone Mountain Coal Co. mine as a trainload of Alabama blacks arrives in the town of Matewan to take up the picks and sticks of dynamite. They, along with a group of Italian immigrants -- all ignorant of the situation -- have been imported to replace the strikers. On the same ominous train rides union organizer Joe Kenehan. Despite prejudice and pain, Kenehan successfully unites the diverse groups to stand against the company.

"They {the bosses} don't care what color you are or where you come from," he says, gesturing from Appalachian to Italian to Alabamian. "You think this man is your enemy. This man is a worker. Any union that keeps this man out ain't a union, it's a club."

It's a fine speech and Kenehan is a fine speaker, but his dialogue is too often simply ideology. Sayles drives the point further as the camera moves from a black playing a harmonica to an Italian strumming a mandolin to a mountain man fiddling around. They're all playing different tunes, and then suddenly they are a harmonious trio playing the solidarity song.

These good people are soon evicted from their company-owned homes by a pair of odious strikebreakers, sucking their teeth, insulting the widows and mocking the hard-shell Baptist parishioners. True, these were hard times. But these varlets, as blatant as Jackie Gleason's Smokey in "Cannonball Run," rob it of the truth.

But they do get us riled up, just like the miners, in time for the shootout -- a massacre that began the West Virginia Mine Wars and brought a union to these impoverished people. Though many have fallen, the youngest of the miners, a 15-year-old, survives to spread the gospel: "There ain't but two sides in the world -- them that work and them that don't. That's all you got to know about the enemy."

"Matewan" is not trying to be "Norma Rae," but Sayles might have learned a lesson from that glossy look at trade unionism, which had its multidimensional heroine as the focus of the fight and the misery of her fellows as a persuasive background. Here the background is intrusive, and the cast is a mob. James Earl Jones, however, can never be ignored, with his booming voice like timbers shivering in the mines. He plays Few Clothes, the ragged, immensely practical, hugely dignified leader of the black miners. "I been called nigger, but I ain't never been called no scab," he rumbles. "I expect the same dollar for the same work." His presence lends the moving, populist tone that Sayles had in mind.

Chris Cooper gives a sweet-faced saintliness to the union organizer Kenehan, a patient, pensive fellow who is his brothers' keeper. David Strathairn, as the sheriff, and Josh Mostel, as the town mayor, also stand out, as does Nancy Mette in an eye-catching performance as the town flirt.

You can't accuse Sayles of shilly-shallying when it comes to his labor politics. And "Matewan," as humorless and bleating as "Silkwood," is likely to appeal only to those who've paid their dues.

DVD Verdict  Barrie Maxwell


not coming to a theater near you (Leo Goldsmith)


Matewan. The Sicilian  History, politics, style, and genre, by John Hess from Jump Cut


Film Threat, Hollywood's Indie Voice   Bob Westal


DVD Talk (Gil Jawetz)


Edwin Jahiel


Ferdy on Films [Marilyn Ferdinand]


Q Network Film Desk (James Kendrick)


Film Freak Central (Walter Chaw)   The Films of John Sayles


Washington Post [Desson Howe]


Siskel & Ebert  video


The New York Times (Vincent Canby)


MEN WITH GUNS                           A                     96

USA  (128 mi)  1998


Written, directed, and edited by Sayles, made for $2.5 million, filmed by Krzystof Kieslowski’s cinematographer, Slawomir Idziak (BLUE, DECALOGUE), and is an immensely sad and moving film, with absolutely perfect use of music, sounding essential, primitive and raw, matching the complete unpretentiousness in the world of this remote mountain landscape. 
An aging, affluent urban doctor roams into the geographic and moral wilderness of an unnamed Latin American country, searching for his former medical students that he trained and sent to work in remote peasant communities several years earlier, yet he hasn’t heard from them since that time.  This project is the one thing in his life for which he is most proud, but he discovers one of the doctors is no longer in the hills, but is running a shady pharmacy in the city, suggesting the doctor see for himself what happened to the others.  Thus begins his journey into the mountains, which is really a journey into history, about centuries of abuse visited on the powerless by the powerful, of societies in collapse because power has been concentrated in the hands of small men made big with guns, shot almost entirely in Spanish, also using some ancient Indian dialects.
We see the ruins of older civilizations that once lived on this land.  We see American tourists searching for antiques who get their information exclusively from guidebooks who haven’t a clue about the reality of the land or the people behind them.  We see powerless villagers, moved here and there according to arbitrary whims of people with guns, killed by the military for helping the guerillas, killed by the guerillas for helping the military, men are killed simply because they are men without guns.  As the doctor ventures further into the jungle, more is stolen from his van, eventually the tires, and he is stranded with a little boy who has become his guide.  Eventually adding more travelers, they suggest elements of THE WIZARD OF OZ, with the doctor himself as Dorothy, while his companions need a voice, a heart and courage.  They continue searching for a legendary lost village named The Circle of Heaven, which is so high in the mountains and so deep in the trees that the military refuses to believe it exists, as their helicopters cannot find it, but people there are free from men with guns so long as they remain hidden.  Ultimately, all the village doctors are discovered murdered, and only the dream of freedom exists in this mythic world of corrupt cities and death-haunted outlands.  This is a film about moral blindness and the shock when the illusions that let us ignore the suffering of others are suddenly, violently stripped away. 
John Sayles:
Probably the idea came during the Vietnam War.  I wrote a short story in which I tried to get rid of the Western concept of free will.  I was thinking about the fact that in wars, often there are more casualties who are civilians than combatants.  I tried to imagine people whose life made them, basically, rice people.  They had their water buffalo, they had their rice paddy, they had their community and it had been that way for centuries.  The Chinese came and went, the French came and went, the Japanese came and went, the French came and went again.  Then the Americans came.  They were just a rumor, and now men with guns are coming again, and you have to do what they’re saying.  As I was writing this, I made sure that almost all the incidents are based on events that have happened somewhere else, almost to the exact detail.  A lot of the dialogue in the beginning when Dr. Fuentes is being defensive, ‘Oh, this doesn’t happen in our country.  Our family has lived with these people for centuries,’ that’s pretty much verbatim what I heard as a kid in the American South when I went down there.  ‘They’re our negroes, we’ve lived with these people and it’s only these outside agitators who’ve blown it out of proportion.’  There are things in this movie that come from Bosnia, from the former Soviet Union, from Africa, where a larger concept of government , whether it’s colonialism or socialism, is blown away and old tribalisms reappear.  But the common factor is that they are people who are just stuck in the middle.  This is a story about a guy, strip all the politics away, he thinks he had done something very good.  But because he didn’t check it out enough, because he didn’t know enough, it turns out to be bad for the students he sent out into the world.  What I wanted also was that possibility, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know my country.’” 


LIMBO                                   A                                 96

USA  Germany  (127 mi)  1999


A film that defies expectations, that spends most of its time exploring what might be an interesting relationship between a couple of drifters in a small fishing village in Alaska, that fills us with throwaway characters who are trying to make a profitable business out of living in Alaska, but also includes graphic images of workers in a fishing hatchery that shuts down, leaving many without work.  In this speculative market, we discover two world weary characters who have had their share of bad luck, who are instantly drawn to one another, but who are wary of troubled relationships, wonderfully expressed by their first date where he takes her to a salmon dying ground just exploding with fish who are flopping around in huge numbers until they die right there on the spot, an odd reflection of their own inner wounds.  It’s a peculiar moment, as neither is quite sure what to make of the other, but it’s clear both want something to develop. 


Oak Park native Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, from de Palma’s SCARFACE (1983) fifteen years earlier or Scorsese’s THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986), is once again glowing in her role as a lounge singer who finds moments that she calls a “state of grace” onstage every night, as she finds meaning in the words of the songs that she gorgeously sings herself, effortlessly revealing her emotional vulnerability in every scene, while David Strathairn is the quiet, moody, more introspective man who carries his life’s troubles in his self-reflections, still haunted by a boating accident on his boat twenty years ago where two friends died.  It’s interesting how much is revealed from both characters that comes from other sources in an Altmanesque layering of overheard conversations as well as the lounge musical performances, especially Mastrantonio’s cover of Richard Thompson’s "Dimming of the Day," which is nothing short of pitch perfect.  But while the camera is following this couple, there are brief vignettes of Mastrantonio’s teenage daughter, Vanessa Martinez, that are gently interspersed without comment or backdrop, but they also clearly indicate her state of dejection, exasperated by constantly moving from place to place and from the aftereffects of having to deal with her mother’s failed relationships.
Then suddenly the film veers off in another direction, leaving civilization and all its troubles behind as the three of them venture into unexplored territory, beautifully expressed by the Alaskan wilderness that initially feels liberating and filled with a wonderful sense of expectation.  But just as suddenly, unforseen circumstances occur and what was perceived as hopeful becomes overwhelmingly dangerous and forbidding, as they are trapped in a remote inlet by killers that we never see, but they are the only ones who know where the three of them are.  The cinematography of Haskell Wexler finds the gloom in the air, the cover of mist and fog in the dense green forest where they take cover and must attempt to survive.  Miraculously, a film that spends its whole time hovering around the budding relationship of two adults suddenly shifts to the poetic state of grace of the daughter, who reads passages every night from a diary left behind ages ago in a makeshift, broken-down hut from a family of fox hunters, where the daughter was amazingly insightful in her intimate description of her parent’s deteriorating relationship, which matches this impending doom of the new inhabitants.  The tenderness in these readings is intoxicating and takes us into clearly unchartered territory, becoming one of the best and most poetic expressions of adolescence of any film I’ve ever seen, eliciting a harrowing mood of sensitivity and sorrow as the world closes in around her.  Vanessa Martinez subtly steals the film right out from under the superbly crafted performances of the adults.  It’s a beautiful piece of storytelling that cleverly changes the focus of the film.  Even the quiet, eerily understated cries of Bruce Springsteen in the song “Lift Me Up” leaves the viewer in something of a hypnotic trance over the end credits from which there is no easy escape.   
Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson)


Writer and director John Sayles (Lone Star) just keeps getting better and better. Limbo is a typically intelligent and literate movie set in an Alaskan fishing village. He spends the first 80 minutes or so introducing us to characters, their nuances, and their conflicts. Then suddenly, he strands three of them, fisherman David Strathairn, singer Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and her daughter Vanessa Martinez, on a remote inlet where no one, except for a pair of killers (who we never see), knows where they are. Like the salmon we see swimming upstream at several points during the movie, the goal is not important--it's how you spend the journey. This is a great movie.


Time Out


Audacious and ambitious even for Sayles, this starts, City of Hope-style, by tracing the connections between various inhabitants of an Alaskan coastal town on the verge of becoming a tourist trap. Gradually, country singer Mastrantonio and ex-fisherman Strathairn begin to put their painful pasts behind them as they embark on a relationship (though her damaged, resentful daughter Martinez is far from sure she wants to see yet another man in mom's life) - but then the seriously unexpected happens, forcing all three to question their priorities and to take risks. Stunningly acted and superbly shot (by Haskell Wexler), it is written, with Sayles' customary ear for vivid phrasing and telling details, as a meditation on man's desire to divorce himself not only from Nature but from his own true nature, imbuing the film with the intensity and rigour of an allegorical fable. And the ending truly makes you think about what you've just seen.


Philadelphia City Paper  Sam Adams

John Sayles takes a step into the realm of art film with this unusually elliptical and open-ended story of people stuck between a past they can’t escape and a future they don’t want to consider. David Strathairn stars as an Alaskan fisherman haunted by a fatal mistake twenty-five years in his past, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is an itinerant saloon singer who keeps falling for the wrong guys, subjecting her daughter to a string of unstable living situations. Perhaps the most significant detail in Limbo is that the daughter, played by Lone Star’s Vanessa Martinez, is a "cutter", who slices her arm with razor blades to make up for the lack of real feeling in her life. Sayles’ movies have always been plot-driven, and characters have turned their anger against others; this is the first example I can think of a Sayles character lashing out at herself, and it’s a startling, quiet detail. The title refers to the characters emotional stasis, a stasis which is broken when the three abruptly become stranded in the Alaskan wilderness more than an hour into the movie. With its unresolved grace note of an ending, Limbo is not Sayles’ most satisfying film, and its abrupt shift in tone can be quite jarring. But the magnificent Strathairn, a Sayles regular, does much with a character of few words, in a drama that is not afraid to ask questions for which there are no answers.

The Onion A.V. Club [Scott Tobias]

Throughout his accomplished and doggedly idiosyncratic career, writer-director John Sayles has possessed an enduring fascination with communities and the forces that paradoxically give rise to them and threaten to obliterate them. Cultural upheaval frayed the counterculture ideals of the titular group in Return Of The Secaucus Seven, tenuous unions form against the overwhelming powers-that-be in Matewan and City Of Hope, and history creates a fault line at the center of a multi-ethnic border town in his masterpiece, 1996's Lone Star. In Sayles' flawed but moving survivalist drama, Limbo, a small pocket of humanity gels around a sad-sack neighborhood bar in Juneau, Alaska. Often dubbed "the final frontier," Alaska may be home to fierce individualists, but they're still drawn like fireflies to singer Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's luminous and suitably forlorn covers of Richard Thompson and Tom Waits songs. Among them is Sayles regular David Strathairn, a haunted and world-weary fisherman who romances the equally damaged Mastrantonio and soon forms a makeshift family with her melancholic daughter, Vanessa Martinez. Unfortunately, Limbo makes an abrupt and extremely clumsy about-face around its halfway point, moving the trio away from the city and into the remote wilderness. Other major contrivances follow, but the weaknesses in Sayles' story and his occasional bouts with didacticism are far outweighed by the film's exceptional intimacy and humanity. Mastrantonio and Strathairn are at their plaintive best as a fragile community unto themselves, aided considerably by the warmth of legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler's photography and Sayles' fine editing, with pointed fades and dissolves that seep right into your bones. Limbo's controversial (and wonderful) ending drew catcalls when it screened at this year's Cannes Film Festival. But more than simply thumbing his nose at convention, Sayles questions what's really essential about these characters, making a more predictable pay-off seem irrelevant.

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Juneau is the only state capital with roads that lead nowhere. Every highway out of town ends in the wilderness. That serves as a metaphor for the characters in John Sayles' "Limbo," a movie about people whose lives are neither here nor there, but stuck in-between. It also helps explain the movie's surprising story structure, which doesn't obediently follow our expectations, but reflects the way a wilderness like Alaska can impose its own abrupt reality.

We meet a local handyman named Joe (David Strathairn), who was a high school All-American until he wrecked his knee, and a fishing boat skipper until he lost two lives and quit the trade. And we meet a singer named Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), whose career on the club circuit has bottomed out at the Golden Nugget Lounge, pretty much the end of the line. She's had bad luck with men, and we see her breaking up with her latest guy at a wedding reception. Joe gives her a lift back to town.

The movie seems to be announcing it is about a relationship. We meet Donna's daughter, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), who is exasperated by her mom's taste in men but begins to like Joe. The backdrop also seems to fall into place. We learn about local campaigns to save the ecology, and about ways to get around them ("Quit with the chainsaws when you get to where people can see"). We meet some of the local fauna, including the high-spirited lesbian couple Lou (Rita Taggart) and Frankie (Kathryn Grody), who have taken over a valued fishing license.

Mastrantonio is a splendid presence in her role. She can sing well, and talks about how sometimes in a song she'll find a moment of grace. She doesn't know what she's doing in Alaska: "Anything where you need equipment instead of clothing, I don't do." Strathairn's character has lived in Alaska most of his life, and it has taught him not to hope for much and to expect anything. But just now it's summer, and the living looks easy. A romance seems to be forming.

We assume we're in familiar John Sayles territory; he likes to populate his stories with large, interlocking casts, and then show how the local politics and economy work. That's what he did in "City of Hope" (1991), set in New Jersey, and the great "Lone Star" (1996).

But he has a surprise ready for us. (Although the ads and review clips reveal it, you might not want to read beyond this point before seeing the movie.) The surprise is a complete overthrow of all of our expectations for the story: a sharp turn in the narrative that illustrates how Alaska is domesticated only up to a point--that the wilderness is only a step away and death only a misstep. I was reminded of the chilling book Into the Wild about the young dropout who went on an Alaskan camping trip where everything went wrong.

Joe has a half-brother, named Bobby (Casey Siemaszko), who talks him into crewing his boat on a "business trip." Joe innocently invites Donna and Noelle along. The purpose of the trip is far from innocent. After narrowly surviving a storm, Joe guides the boat into an islet where few boats ever come. And then there are more unexpected developments, and three of them (Joe, Donna and Noelle) find themselves castaways on an island far from anyone else.

What I liked so much about this story structure is that it confounded my expectations at every step. I expected the story to stay in Juneau, but it didn't. When it took a turn toward adventure, I thought the threat would come from nature--but it comes from men. After the three characters are stranded, I expected--I don't know what, maybe Swiss Family Robinson-style improvisation.

But Sayles gradually reveals his buried theme, which is that in a place like the Alaskan wilderness you can never be sure what will happen next. And that optimism, bravery and ingenuity may not be enough. Some of the best dialogue passages in the film involve Joe's quiet realism. He refuses to raise false hopes. And of course even the hope of rescue comes with a hidden barb: Will they be found by friends, or death? The movie leaves conventional plot structure behind, and treks off into the wilderness itself. There's even a story within the story, based on a journal Noelle finds--and it contains a surprise, too. Then comes the ending. Watching the screen, I felt confident that I knew exactly what would happen. What, and how, and why. And I was wrong. The more you think about the way "Limbo" ends, the more you realize that any other ending would betray the purpose of the story. Sayles has started with a domestic comedy, and led us unswervingly into the heart of darkness. (Myron Santos)

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is one of the most beautiful - and underused - actresses in the movies. Her face is perfect; and the delight is, with her uncommonly wide and prominent cheekbones that fill the breadth of the screen regardless of her distance from the camera lens, that there's so much of it to admire. She alone made Robin Hood worth sitting through to the end, and her role in The Abyss helped make science fiction a genre safe for acting.

In Limbo, Mastrantonio plays Donna, a club singer whose career is as unsuccessful as her romances with men and her relationship with Noelle, her daughter. Donna's nomadic tour has taken her and Noelle to Juneau, Alaska, for a set of gigs in the local taverns. While performing at a wedding, the flighty dysfunctional singer announces to the guests that she's breaking up with her latest romance, the accordionist, and trounces offstage after finishing her last number. For the first third of the movie Mastrantonio creases and crinkles her faces to uncomfortably unpleasant result; when she does that, she's as unpleasant off the stage as Jennifer Jason Leigh was onstage in Georgia, and I worry her face will freeze that way.

The initial focus here is on Mastrantonio because she's new and awkward to John Sayles territory. While some moviemakers are pseudo-intellectuals, others are stand-up comics, and most of them are hacks, Sayles is above all else a free-lance writer and travel agent. In making his own independent movies (which he finances in part by doing screenplay grunt-work for Hollywood - if whoring one's talents was good enough for Faulkner and Fitzgerald, why can't Sayles get in on the action?) he combines both of these pursuits. For Sayles, the place is the thing; whether it's the Tex-Mex border in Lone Star, West Virginia in Matewan, or an unnamed (why?) Latin American country in Men With Guns, he has made a career out of providing us with coach flights out to disagreeable destinations and a bland paper-clipped novella/travelogue to read aloud on a dodgily self-guided walking tour. His films have only ever "looked" like movies, and I don't recall a moment from any of his works that are more embraceable as places in the mind and heart than places on a map or a story. In Truffaut/Hitchcock, surely the best film interview, a masterpiece is described as a creative work that "finds its form." John Sayles is a very good writer, but his pieces don't gravitate toward or yearn to be recorded on film. As far as directors go there is not much separating John Sayles and Kevin Smith.


The long introduction is necessary because Limbo is not only the first real movie John Sayles has made, it's the best one that has been released this year to date, and will most likely - should - stay at the top of anyone's list through the end of the year. The first third of Limbo is off-kilter in part because Sayles has a happy dilemma - in having to direct Mastrantonio, who is just too radiant to be in a normal Sayles movie; and having Haskell Wexler, who is just too talented to be in a normal Sayles movie, as his director of photography - that he needs to resolve. Once the characters settle in, Limbo takes off. Sayles loyalist David Straithairn, who plays the Juneau lifer Joe (a former high school All-American basketball player - recruited by John Wooden, he was that good - whose injury resigned him to life as a townie), is fantastic as usual, and it's his calm presence that helps Mastrantonio adjust.

The movie starts out as standard Sayles fare: the region (Juneau, Alaska) and its denizens are introduced, but before everything settles down to an intolerably slow pace as in Lone Star, everything shifts. Joe, persuaded back into fishing twenty-five years after an accident that left two of his passengers drowned, takes Donna, Noelle and his half-brother Bobby for a boat cruise. Bobby's intentions for this trip are devious, and a turn of events results in them getting stranded on a frigid forest island. For the rest of the movie Joe, Donna and Noelle try to maintain warmth and sanity in an old cabin that fox-trapping settlers used to inhabit, and find a way to communicate their situation by fire. (If Hell is other people in a room with no exit, then Limbo is larger, prettier, and without a thermostat.)

The dialogue, clunky and resembling wisely crossed-out theatre scenes in the first part of the movie, improves greatly. While on the island a great chemistry develops between the three, and here Sayles' crafting of characters shines through. Once the familiar territory of Juneau is left behind, Wexler's photography, Sayles' writing and the cast's performances all merge seamlessly. Mastrantonio and Straitharn make a good onscreen couple, and in one of my favorite shots in the movie Donna smiles and wrinkles her nose at Joe exactly the way my ex- (a Romanian punk princess who looked exactly like Mastrantonio) used to.

Limbo is unexpectedly wonderful, which I think is the best kind. After having to sit through Sayles movies that seem largely funded by grants from the Advanced Placement U.S. History Council (such as Lone Star and Matewan, which I did indeed watch in my high school history class), the two or three major twists in the movie are absolutely perfect. One involves Noelle's discovery and reading of a journal in the old cabin, and the other is the ending itself. They may have come as surprises to other members of the audience, but I knew well in advance exactly what was about to come before they did. For the movie to have succeeded, these elements couldn't have happened any other way. The movie Limbo was too good not to be true.

Sight and Sound   Philip Kemp


DVD Times  Gary Couzens


PopMatters  Cynthia Fuchs, also seen here:  Nitrate Online


New York Observer (Andrew Sarris) [Mary Elizabeth Williams]


World Socialist Web Site  David Walsh


not coming to a theater near you (Leo Goldsmith)


indieWIRE   Danny Lorber  Arthur Lazere


James Berardinelli's ReelViews


Murali Krishnan


Political Film Review


Slate [David Edelstein]


City Pages, Minneapolis/St. Paul   Phil Anderson


David Dalgleish


Scott Renshaw (Elaine Perrone)


Village Voice (Michael Atkinson) DVD review [Marina Chavez]


AboutFilm  Jeff Vorndam


DVD Verdict  Mike Jackson  Angus Wolfe Murray


Harvey S. Karten


eFilmCritic  Matt Langdon from iF magazine


SPLICEDwire (Rob Blackwelder)


Goatdog's Movies (Michael W. Phillips, Jr.)   says a terrible cheat ending ruined it


Mike D'Angelo, The Man Who Viewed Too Much  calls it Sayles at his clunkiest and most labored thinks Limbo stinks  Christopher Null claims Sayles is a hack of the worst sort


Austin Chronicle [Marjorie Baumgarten]


The Boston Phoenix   Peter Keough


Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan)


New York Times (registration req'd)  Stephen Holden



USA  (141 mi)  2002


Sunshine State   Ed Gonzalez from Slant magazine


Arguably the greatest of American writers, William Faulkner was drawn to the human drama of the South, its growth, its decadence, its decay and its subsequent reinvention. Faulkner's American pastoral was built on the historical drama that extended over almost a century from the beginning of the Civil War to the time of his death. That Faulkner has become so important to people of color is perhaps a testament to his patient humanity. With the possible exception of David Gordon Green (whose follow-up to George Washington, All the Real Girls, opens later this year), no other white male director has paid such close attention to the legacy of slavery in the South as writer-director John Sayles does in Sunshine State.

Sayles continues exactly where Faulkner left off, tackling the institutionalized racism that seethes in the New South, specifically in the fictional town of Delrona Beach, Florida, a capitalist-wary community trying to reconcile its past and tradition-free present. Buccaneer Days is the town's yearly, five-day celebration of nothing, or, more accurately,
Florida's invasion by pirates. The film opens with the young Terrell (Bernard Alexander Lewis) setting fire to the festival's main parade float, which lies adrift on a stretch of sandy beach that resembles the desolate golf course Murray Silver (Alan King) uses as a stage for his historical allocutions. Like Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs) and the blind Furman Temple (Ralph Waite), Murray is so attached to the past and drunk on his own rhetoric to ever acknowledge that the past is obscuring his present.

The past is everywhere in Sunshine State but no one knows what to do with it. King, Dr. Lloyd and
Temple can only talk about it. Terrell tries to fight it, taking a flame to capitalism's romantic reconstruction of Florida's violent history. Sayles calls the film's capitalist conglomerate the Exley Plantations Inc. because, quite simply, it comes to represent institutionalized slavery. The company wants luxury hotels, malls and boardwalks to decorate the shorelines. The people of Delrona are easily exploited; indeed, they have so little money and, therefore, so little hope that retaliation becomes near impossible. Jane Alexander's southern belle Delia Temple (is this Sayles engaging Faulkner's Temple Drake?) is a theatre queen who takes the town's troubled children under her wing. Unlike her husband, she has overcome the death of her twin boys, football heroes from the days when schools were segregated. In Delia, Sayles sees progress; by not living in the past she seems more aware of the present and, in turn, is capable of one-upping the capitalist expansion.

That Delia may have a few screws loose means, perhaps, that she has gone too far in the opposite direction of her husband. He's too blind to run his hotel, handing it over to his daughter Marly (Edie Falco) and hoping that she'll continue his legacy. He's crippled by the memory of his dead sons and, therefore, cannot transcend his past. Delia has the expert legal expertise though she never addresses the death of her children and, so, her battiness becomes her ritual for denial. Marly occupies a comfortable middle ground, transcending tragedy by finding a sliver of joy in the death of her brothers.
Sunshine State moves slowly, and rightfully so. Sayles understands the texture of the South, replicating in his narrative the lolling rhythm of Southern life. It makes the careful unraveling of backstory (the death of two brothers, the murder/suicide of an orphan's parents) that much easier to taste. It makes Sayles' incredible metaphors (capitalism-as-undertow, Terrell's coffin for Delia's stage production of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying) that much easier to swallow.

Mary (Eunice Stokes), Terrell's aunt, is also haunted by her past, so much so that tradition becomes difficult to maintain—she's so blinded by pride that she'd rather buy her fried chicken at Popeyes than make it herself. And what with all the strained parent-child relationships and threatening shots of factories looming on the horizon, the drama of Sunshine State remains a quintessentially Southern one. Rather than keep her young pregnant daughter at home, Mary chose to save face by sending her away. Now older, Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett), like Faulkner's
Lena from Light in August, finds more than the father of her baby when she returns to Delrona. She confronts a different kind of racism when the Florida Flash (Tom Wright) hides opportunism behind humanitarianism. Sayles, though, has sympathy for all his characters. With the Florida Flash, the director shows how a broken dream can make a black man turn against his own people.

Sayles even throws in a clever reference to Darwinism, attacking capitalism by targeting Plantations Inc.'s notion that progress can only be achieved by commercializing the landscape. Sayles' agenda is a very leftist one yet his execution is so carefully and subtly pointed to ever rely on smarmy, easy answers. How does one go about acknowledging and reconciling the past without being blinded by its tragedy? Gordon Clapp's Earl Pickney is so tortured by his work for Plantations Inc. that you'd think Sayles was punishing him by frustrating the character's suicide attempts. Earl's wife Francine (Mary Steenburgen) is frustrated by Delorna's twisted sense of civic pride and, while Sayles spends entirely too little time with this couple, a final bedside sequence is particularly hopeful. During the film's very spiritual finale, history is unearthed and saves the day, right around the time the characters of Sunshine State have all learned to tame it and grow parallel to it, rather than against it.


SILVER CITY                                   B+                   91

USA  (129 mi)  2004


A multi-layered, sprawling film filled with political satire that examines life in small-town Colorado, where freedom is something promised, continually filling the screen with political ads, yet it’s a concept that belongs exclusively to the landowners who basically own everything, where everything else is bought and paid for, including the police, media outlets, news reporting, and anything resembling the truth.  In this noirish underworld where sleazy corporate interests are busy eliminating environmental safeguards for a quick buck, protected by paid-for politicians who are lining their pockets at the expense of the public’s interest, Danny Huston plays a crumpled idealist, a former reporter whose career was ruined years ago when his witnesses were bought off and either fled or changed their tune, and now he’s trying to get his life back in order working as a private investigator.  When a politician reels in a dead body on his fishing line while shooting a political ad, Huston begins to smell something fishy, and tries to get to the bottom of it.  Huston’s voice inflections so closely resemble his father, John Huston, that it was a delight just listening to him – as if his father, Noah Cross from CHINATOWN, was speaking from the grave.  Monica Bello plays his former girl friend, engaged to a corporate lobbyist, who works now as a reporter covering the gubernatorial race, covering the rich son of a still richer U.S. Senator, who is owned by a still richer landowner, played interesting enough by Kris Kristofferson, a man who surrounds himself in a universe where only winners can play, a self-made billionaire who got rich hauling toxic waste, who derides environmental protectionism, claiming no one has the patience for underdogs anymore, that what’s needed is for Americans to “liberate the resources.”  And who really cares about an illegal toxic dump site when construction for the next community development project, pushed ahead by the right powerbrokers, can just build right over it?  Chris Cooper overplays a George W Bush-like candidate who is completely dependent on the guidance of his father’s handlers, led by the über, super-charged, semi-psychotic campaign manager, Richard Dreyfuss.  Daryl Hannah, in a role Quinten Tarantino would drool over, plays the boozy, drug-loving, black sheep of the family with a chip on her shoulder, the candidate’s sister who sleeps with Huston before betraying him and getting him fired.  “My whole life’s a grudge,” she admits.  Within this framework, the story follows the meanderings of the private eye, as he mingles with high society as well as with the down and outers, following the trail of clues that leads to a neatly packaged story about power and corruption, privatization and deregulation, overplaying its hand a bit, so no opinion is left to chance, yet it has that nicely balanced and refreshing feel of realism with intelligence, where we hear conversation that resembles how people actually talk, a skill so noticeably absent in most films seen today. 


HONEYDRIPPER                                                    B                     85

USA  123 mi)  2007


A film set in the black rural South of Alabama in 1950, where the local white judge and sheriff combine to keep the cotton fields manned with black workers, men and women alike, most of them prison workers who were likely confined on bogus charges in order to maintain a continuous production of almighty cotton, where the remnants of the plantation era of slavery remain in full effect one hundred years later with workers still in the fields guarded by white armed guards.  In this small town of Harmony, it appears time has stood still.  It’s an interesting setting for a white filmmaker, especially when he’s chosen to write what resembles a dialogue-accentuated August Wilson play, turning this into an homage to Wilson, featuring many of his favorite actors, especially Charles S. Dutton who was nominated for Tony awards in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (1985) and "The Piano Lesson" (1990), but also utilizing similar themes, such as enduring the past and struggling to overcome the economic hardships experienced by generations of African-Americans, where music and religion vie as competing spiritual paths.   There is so much dialogue in this film set in constricted single room settings that this does have the feel of a play.  Unfortunately, what Sayles doesn’t have is Wilson’s magnificently original dramatic talent for giving voice to the least among us, the invisible men and women we see crossing our paths every day, where it never occurs to us to engage them in conversation or take an interest in their life stories.  Wilson finds the divine through these ordinary lives.  Instead, Sayles has created a commercially viable, feel good musical drama that is his variation on the theme that bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, a common Delta blues myth, breaking no new ground here, offering a tame, fairly standard version of the legend with a first rate cast who deliver stunning performances.  What’s missing here is a vital message, the appeal of a universal truth, a dramatic transcendence, or any sense of urgency in these characters to discover something we haven’t seen before.  Instead they operate safely within predictable preset guidelines. 


The music alone, some of the songs written by Sayles himself, create an enduring metaphor, especially as performed by a remarkably gifted local blues musician, Keb’ Mo’ performing acoustically, a blind seer who sits on the street and plays thematically relevant songs, like an African griot, telling the story through song, who says white folks are so unthreatened by him that they never see him at all.  Dr. Mable John makes a powerful presence as Bertha Mae, an elderly sophisticated blues stylist who is performing to a near empty house known as the Honeydripper Lounge.  Reminiscent of the purity and elegance of Parisian nightclub performer Bricktop, it is evident times have passed her by.  Danny Glover is the piano playing owner of the establishment, Tyrone “Pinetop” Purvis, who is broke and can’t pay her anymore, while Charles Dutton as his long time friend and accomplice is Maceo, as in Maceo Parker, James Brown’s right hand man, as in ”Maceo, blow that horn.”  Davenia McFadden plays Nadine, a shapely oversized woman who has her eyes all over Maceo, a sassy woman whose demure sweet talk would keep the night forever young.  A drifter rolls into town off a late night train, a young man with a guitar looking for work known as Sonny, Gary Clark Jr, who runs into Keb’ Mo’ the next morning steering him towards the Honeydripper where they realize the first thing this kid needs is a decent meal.  Lisa Gay Hamilton is Purvis’s wife, Delilah, a woman who has spent most of her life inside a bar yet is still intent on finding true religion, while their daughter China Doll (Yaya DaCosta, 1st runner up on Season 3 from “America’s Next Top Model”) cooks up some breakfast for Sonny, a first opportunity where their eyes and their stories meet.  In no time, Sonny is arrested for walking down the highway penniless by the white Sheriff, Stacy Keach, who immediately ships him off to the cotton fields.  Meanwhile, Purvis is so in debt that he’s on the verge of losing his property, so as a last hope he has to resort to drastic measures by dredging up something from his mysterious past that he’s ethically opposed to, bringing in a named guitar player from New Orleans called Guitar Sam, who may or may not even show up to this God forsaken place.  Meanwhile, the devil is in the details, as we hear Keb’ Mo’ sing his rendition of “Stagger Lee” (see: The Stagger Lee Files:) to which Purvis replies, “I never did like that song.”


With the introduction of the players, it’s only a matter of time before we hear the kid play, as he’s brought with him an electric guitar, a sign of the changing times.  It seems to take forever before he’s finally shoved onto a makeshift stage, but the rest, of course, is history.  The musical numbers are dynamic, joyful, eye-poppingly delightful, instantly turning away the ghosts of the past and bringing back to life all that was missing at this dreary crossroads in the middle of nowhere.  More than the music, though, which feels like an exclamation point, the brisk dialogue is the continual energetic pulse that feeds the heartfelt and soulful engine throughout the film, which moves so fast at times or is spoken under a Robert Altman-like multiple sound track so that plenty is indecipherable or missed by the viewer.  This is unfortunate, as the diverse richness of spirit in the personality of the characters is developed by peppering the script with plenty of humorous back and forth banter, with trials and tribulations, musical references, stories and friendly recollections along with occasional gospel services with a lively choir and an earthy preacher balanced against the sweaty vibe of a rockin’ juke joint where the nothing-to-lose wail of an electric guitar becomes a lone voice in the dark that nullifies all previous transgressions.  It’s an enthusiastic stab at American history through folk lore and music, but it’s an oversimplistic vision that lacks an understanding of the poetry of the people who lived and died in that era who have largely been overlooked and forgotten.  This film attempts to do them justice, but like the man in the film who claimed he never found justice in a town called Liberty, Sayles never really finds their voice.


Planet Sick-Boy

It would be fair to say that eclectic American indie writer-director John Sayles has been in a bit of a slump for the last decade.  Only Casa de los Babys came close to matching the staggering efforts made in the first half of his career, and while it’s not as big a misstep as Silver City, this picture is more evidence of Sayles and his obvious funk.

Danny Glover plays the proprietor of a rural Alabama juke-joint that can barely afford to keep its doors open.  His “Hail Mary” attempt to save the place is a one-night performance by a legend named Guitar Sam, which will coincide with cotton harvest time, when everyone’s wallets will be fat with drinking money.  Very light and quite predictable, especially from a guy who made fricking Lone Star.  Alert for fans of America’s Next Top Model: Cycle Two’s Yaya has a decent-sized role, and doesn’t even embarrass herself. [MaryAnn Johanson]

John Sayles’ latest movie, his 16th, is another wonder of beautifully observant cinema, a sneakily magical immersion in a lost place and time: rural Alabama in 1950, where an about-to-go-under juke joint might just be the unlikely stage for the birth of a whole new kind of music. Danny Glover (Barnyard) runs the Honeydripper, and he’s losing his customers to the more hopping place catty-corner across the crossroads. That the intersection of these two dirt paths in the middle of nowhere could support two such establishments seems improbable anyway, but there’s a kind of fairy-tale enchantment shimmering just under the surface of everything happening here, from the spectre who plays a mean blues guitar who hovers in the background to how the fusebox at the Honeydripper seems to blow out -- or not -- at the most auspicious -- or not -- of moments. It’s possible that we’re not in Alabama at all but actually in some corner of heaven where the tunes are kickin’ and won’t let you not get up and bop. Like a slow Southern drawl or a lazy blues riff, this sharp and salty tease of a flick builds to a climax so understated, for all the noise on its facade, that its depth and comic wisdom only become apparent as you turn it over in your mind later. Which you will: this is a scrumptiously unforgettable film, one you’ll be unable to resist revisiting in your head to unknot all its lusciously devious charms.

HERE  Charles Burnett from Emerging Pictures Blogs

I saw John Sayles' "Honeydripper" at the IFP event in New York and wanted to share some thoughts… 

"Honeydripper" is an appealing story set in the South and it is a fascinating account of a man, Pine Top, who is haunted by events in his past that keeps him from succeeding in the present. The story has many levels and it is a joy to watch Sayles, as he does in his other films, work socially relevant issues into his stories without compromising the narrative. 

The story is unique. Things are not what they seem and yet, there is a connection with everything and everyone that creates a feeling of magic. The Ominous blind guitar player helps to create a surreal atmosphere. I was drawn to all the characters in the film. However, Danny Glover, who plays Pine Top, is so good that you think the Blues were written especially for him. Pine Top resonates. His desperation leads him to contemplate doing wrong to save his Juke Joint. His defining moment is when he contemplates stealing a dead woman’s ring off of her finger but can't bring himself to stoop so low. 

In the end, "Honeydripper" is a story about redemption. Sonny, played by Gary Clark Jr., is a fascinating character who finds himself at the doorsteps of Pine Top’s Honeydripper Juke Joint hoping to find a job playing his guitar, which is the only instrument that Pine Top hates. 

In spite of where and when the story takes place, the story takes one on pleasant journey that shows us that people have to do what they have to in order to survive.

Another thing that I really appreciated about "Honeydripper" is that it is a story about people who are in a situation where people with power can determine if one lives or dies. The cause of the tension is the perpetual injustice from the legacy of slavery. There are a lot of issues that are not focused on, but are clearly visible in the atmosphere. Race is an ongoing issue that good people are not afraid to tackle. John Sayles' films are out front on that issue.

The Onion A.V. Club [Scott Tobias]

Writer-director John Sayles could be called a lot of things—an activist, a humanist, a versatile chronicler of social ills past and present—but the first tag that comes to mind is "earnest," which doesn't always work to his advantage as a filmmaker. Since Return Of The Secaucus 7 in 1980, he's quietly forged his own path in independent filmmaking, making substantive movies that even at their best (Lianna, Matewan, Lone Star, Passion Fish) are dogged by an awkwardness that goes hand-in-glove with his seriousness of purpose. For all his good qualities, Sayles has never been much of a sensualist, and that's the problem at the root of Honeydripper, a story about a '50s roadhouse in rural Alabama that requires a little heat to get the joint jumpin'. It needs to be electrifying, and instead, it's a John Sayles movie.

Still, the film has plenty of redeeming qualities, starting with a daunting ensemble of first-rate African-American character actors who keep the action from flatlining entirely. Danny Glover does subtle work as an aging piano man and owner of a failing roadhouse called the Honeydripper, which has had most of its live-show customers siphoned off by a more popular juke-joint down the street. Deep in debt to his landlord and the liquor man, Glover and right-hand man Charles S. Dutton hatch a plan to bring rising R&B star Guitar Sam to the club for a one-night-only bonanza. When that plan starts to go south, they turn to a young Robert Johnson-like stranger (Gary Clark Jr.), who claims to know Guitar Sam's work backward and forward. And he's brought along a curious instrument: an electric guitar.

Though Glover's efforts to save his business are central to Honeydripper, it's only one of many subplots that constitute Sayles' sprawling tapestry of a cotton-picking country that seems permanently insulated from progress. Some other drama plays out on the cotton fields, where the local sheriff (a glowering Stacy Keach) makes up charges to force black men to harvest for a pittance, and in the Glover home, where his wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton) considers abandoning him for God, and his daughter (Yaya DaCosta, of America's Next Top Model) makes eyes at Clark Jr. There are precisely zero surprises in how things play out—the main thread is basically Big Night revisited—but the film gets better as it goes along, and it closes with a rousing musical flourish, as immensely charismatic newcomer Clark Jr. finally hits the stage. At last, Sayles' sleepy drama wakes with a start.

Looking Closer  Kenneth R. Morefield

I have seen fourteen of John Sayles’s first fifteen films, most more than once, and the only one I didn’t like was his last one (“Silver City”). So it was with an odd mix of excitement and anxiety that I approached the world premiere of “Honeydripper” at the Ryerson Theater in Toronto. Two hours later the anxiety was gone and I just felt the excitement. “Honeydripper” had the scope of “Lone Star,” the eye for detail of “Limbo,” the great acting of “Casa de los Babys” and the depth of understanding of human nature of “Matewan” and “Eight Men Out.” In other words, it had and was everything I love about Sayles’s films. It also had something relatively rare in a Sayles film: joie de vivre.

It was a serious film about a serious topic—the trials of a black proprietor to keep his nightclub, The Honeydripper, afloat amid precarious circumstances and environmental oppression. There were echoes of “Big Night,” however, and as with that film, the artist’s love of his medium infused his work with an irrepressible spirit that could be squelched but not fully extinguished. When the personal and cultural elements finally do come together in such away to allow Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover in a finely nuanced role) to put on a show, it comes with a confirmation (subtle but deliberate, I think) that God is in his heaven and does, occasionally, spare a glance for the most neglected of sparrows.

Tyrone does not have much call for God, though he likes and takes comfort that his wife, the oh-so-ironically named Delilah, will say a prayer for him now and again. One of the most poignant moments in the film is when Delilah must decide between what her heart or what her head tells her is true about God. Lisa Gay Hamilton gives a performance that perfectly complements Glover’s and the two are able to convey an easy comfort with and around each other than explains a large part of how their characters’ respective spirits have not been soured by a life of hard circumstances.

Last year, in the wake of Kurt Vonnegut’s death, one of my students asked me who I considered the greatest living American writer. I rounded up and suggested the usual suspects—Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike—but if she asked me today, I’m not sure I wouldn’t be tempted to nominate Sayles for that honor. American prose literature has (to a certain extent) always been fractured into and by regionalism to such an extent that it is hard to name authors who are quintessentially American. Hawthorne belongs first to Puritan New England and only second to the rest of us. Faulkner and O’Connor represent the South but leave large portions of the country undocumented. Hemmingway and James always seem to have one eye on the rest of the world and how America interacts with it. Twain, perhaps, has characters that are mythic enough to embody America and not just some part of it, but his critical reputation is largely the result of only one of his works.

By way of comparison, consider the scope of Sayles’s work. We have the West (“Lone Star”) and the South (“Sunshine State”). We have the rural (“Honeydripper”), the urban (“City of Hope”; “The Brother from Another Planet”), and the wilderness (“Limbo”). We see characters abroad (“Casa de los Babys” and the tourists in “Men With Guns”) and provincially tied to one place (“Passion Fish”). We see black and white, men and women, lesbian (“Lianna”) and straight, the privileged wealthy (“Eight Men Out” and “Casa de Los Babys) and the struggling poor (“Matewan”). We see people with honest faith (“Matewan”) and honest doubt (“Passion Fish”), sometimes in the same film (“Honeydripper”). And I haven’t even mentioned the work he has contributed to films he did not direct.

Despite this range of subjects, Sayles’s ear for dialogue and human interaction almost never rings false. “He could play mud if you gave him a beat” Purvis says of a mythical first African-American with music in his bones. Sayles might not be able to get music from mud, but, like Walt Whitman, he can hear the varied carols of America singing. Given the performances of Glover, Hamilton, Charles S. Dutton, and Stacey Keach in addition to a soundtrack that positively pops, “Honeydripper” may be one of Sayles’s most accessible films, and it is to his credit that Sayles has managed to craft a film that may be a bit more commercially successful than some of his others without compromising or dumbing down his material.

In a summer and autumn in which the film world has lost two of its living legends, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, let us resolve to enjoy and appreciate the giants who still walk…and sing…and write…and film…among us.  Chris Barsanti


Chicago Reader (Jonathan Rosenbaum)


Screen International   Patrick Z. McGavin [Andrew O'Hehir]  including an interview with the director


indieWIRE   Kristi Mitsuda from Reverse Shot


Cinematical [Monika Bartyzel]


Slant Magazine [Ed Gonzalez] (Peter Sobczynski) [Robert Levin]


Between Productions [Robert Cashill]


Film Journal International [Harvey Karten]


Los Angeles Times [Kevin Crust]


Chicago Tribune (Michael Phillips)


Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times


New York Times (registration req'd)  Stephen Holden


Schatzberg, Jerry



USA  (110 mi)  1971


Time Out


A gruelling but highly responsible film about the influence of heroin on a New York street romance. Schatzberg moves with considerable force over the urban territory of Midnight Cowboy, using hand-held cameras and a sustained editing rhythm to convey the couple's gradual descent into hell as mercilessly as he shows the needles entering his characters' veins (in close-up). Pacino, as the boy, proves that he didn't need Coppola to make him act, but Kitty Winn is less satisfactory, and the film is finally subject to an iron law of diminishing returns after its plot plumbs the depths and can find nothing to do except batter us some more. In fact, the anti hard drugs message comes on so strong and so realistically that the British censor's ban (lifted in 1975) seems positively malicious: it's precisely this kind of suppression of information which results in junkie mythologies. (From the novel by James Mills.


Slant Magazine [Fernando F. Croce]

In many ways the harsh hangover to the previous decade's hope-filled high, American film in the '70s extracted much of its power from documenting the fallout from the dreams of the '60s. Bleak and intimate, The Panic in the Needle Park rolls up the drug culture's sleeve and picks at the scabs underneath. The title of Jerry Schatzberg's account of heroin abuse refers to the drug trade in New York City's Sherman Square, which provided local addicts with an illusory feeling of community. Helen (Kitty Winn) is first spotted in a crowded subway car following a clandestine abortion, and the muted pain in her soft face sets the film's tone of neurasthenic distress. Lost in the city, she falls for Bobby (a jittery, charismatic Al Pacino), a small-time smack pusher who introduces her to the world of strung-out junkies and tricks; the two self-deceivingly hope to keep their romance intact amid the squalor, but, as a narc (Alan Vint) puts it, no addict is above betrayal when their habit is put on the line. A relatively unsung chronicler of '70s alienation, Schatzberg is scrupulously attuned to the telling movements of his wounded characters, and, having gotten fashion-mag sleekness out of his system in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, vividly embraces the uncomposed grime of their milieu. Shot in a loose, semi-improvised style, the film strains for physical details—the process of shooting up, from mapping out a usable vein to the rush of a needle hitting home, is graphically documented—yet it is the offhand emotional moments that linger, like the quietly devastating instant that Bobby hugs Helen and notices for the first time that she's become a junkie like him. Remembered mainly as the neophyte Pacino's launching pad into Godfather stardom, the modestly scaled, harrowing Panic in Needle Park has over the decades proven to be nearly as influential as Coppola's blockbuster, setting a cinematic template later used by Drugstore Cowboy, Requiem for a Dream, and a good deal of Sundance Channel fodder.

VideoVista [Gary Couzens]


New York City, the early 1970s. Bobby (Al Pacino) is a heroin addict. He meets Jenny (Kitty Winn) and they fall in love. But slowly, gradually, Jenny gets dragged into Bobby's world, one of lowlifes, needles, and where everything can be bought or sold for the price of a fix. The part of the city known as Needle Park...
Panic In Needle Park, written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne from a book by James Mills, was a controversial film in its day. It took an unflinching look at drug addiction, not shying away from its causes and consequences. It was an early lead role for Al Pacino who is very impressive here: reputedly this role earned him the part of Michael Corleone in The Godfather. However, Kitty Winn is just as good, and on this evidence deserves to be better known than as the one you tend to forget is in The Exorcist. (According to the IMDb, she hasn't made a film since 1978 and now acts exclusively on stage.) In fact, Jenny is the leading role, as it's her character journey we follow, her descent into addiction and prostitution to pay for her habit. The narrative is more character-driven than plotted, but it ends with an act of betrayal that could just as well be seen as a final desperate act of love.
Jerry Schatzberg is hardly a name to conjure with nowadays, being generally dismissed as a modish name as dated as yesterday's fashions, as with films like Puzzle Of A Downfall Child (made the previous year). He does good work here, though: going for a gritty, natural light look. He should also be given credit for the convincing performances, not just those of the two leads but also the supporting cast, which includes Paul Sorvino and Raul Julia. Awful warnings about drug addiction are two a penny now, but this film has more depth and honesty than most, which is why it still holds up.
In 1971, the BBFC banned Panic outright, passing it three years later with cuts. Previous video releases have been of this cut version (presumably the "instructional" shots of preparing and injecting heroin - Schatzberg spares us nothing). This budget-priced DVD release has had the cuts reinstated, making this the first time this film has been commercially available in its complete form in the UK. It's worth mentioning that the complete version is hard to track down in the US, as the distributors later cut the film to drop its MPAA rating from the original R to a PG, removing the shooting-up scenes and some strong language. In fact the film's language is quite restrained given the subject matter, though it does include an early use of that taboo word which begins with C.
This DVD has a full-frame (open matte) picture, and the original mono soundtrack. No subtitles. Disc extras: the theatrical trailer and a Hollywood Remembers 26-minute overview of Pacino's career, with plenty of clips but as superficial as it sounds.


DVD Times  Raphael Pour-Hashemi


DVD Talk [Jamie S. Rich]


PopMatters [Bruce Dancis] [Les Phillips]


DVD Verdict [Tom Becker]


Movie Reviews UK  Damian Cannon


All Movie Guide [Lucia Bozzola]


Movie House Commentary  Johnny Web


Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times


DVDBeaver [Gary Tooze]



USA  (112 mi)  1973  ‘Scope


Time Out

A tale with a moral about two drifters who meet on a deserted highway, and find antagonism gradually replaced by curiosity, need, trust and love. Lion (Pacino) clasps a present he is taking to the kid he deserted all those years ago; Max (Hackman) is an ex-con moving a step closer towards his dream of a self-owned carwash. Their relationship is charted like a love affair, full of petty jealousies, little tricks to forestall bad moods, recriminations, regrets. Then Schatzberg throws away the more interesting implications in order to make emotional hay. The pair land in prison, their relationship is tested by the grim realities they find there, and we are off into an embarrassing last section which ends with Max mourning over Lion's catatonic body. A pity - there could have been a movie in there. As it is, Scarecrow owes a lot to Vilmos Zsigmond's photography and little to Garry Michael White's over-insistent and finally rather silly script.

All Movie Guide [Craig Butler]

Before Scarecrow's meandering, but enjoyable, "odd couple" plot takes a melodramatic turn at the end, the film is an engrossing and delightful character study. The meandering is not a negative in this instance; the mismatched buddies are themselves drifters, wandering through their lives in search of meaning and purpose. Very much a product of its times, Scarecrow is dated, but not in a bad way. It comes across as a snapshot, both of the mood of the country at the time and of the "free" style of filmmaking that flourished briefly as new directors played with new styles and new themes. Scarecrow is not as consciously experimental as other works from the same period, but its willingness to linger over the quirks and oddities of its two main characters is fairly unusual. Jerry Schatzberg gives the proceedings a rueful atmosphere, helped immensely by Vilmos Zsigmond's evocative and subtly stunning cinematography. But the film's biggest asset is its cast. Gene Hackman and Al Pacino have rarely been better. Hackman uses his curious combination of world weariness and hidden explosiveness to very good effect, and, at times, he dominates the film. Pacino sneaks up on the viewer more, turning in a performance that is more nuanced and much less explosive than is usually his wont. It's a remarkably fine piece of acting. The supporting cast is also quite good, with especially notable work from Richard Lynch, Eileen Brennan and Penelope Allen.

Being There Magazine [Michael Allen]

The rural cousin of Midnight Cowboy, Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow is a lost gem from the last golden age of American cinema.  It tells the story of two drifters who wander across an economically depressed America with dreams of opening a carwash in Pittsburgh.  Oh, and it features Al Pacino and Gene Hackman before they became parodies of their iconic selves. 

Pacino and Hackman act up a storm in this small 1973 film after having hit the big time with The Godfather and The French Connection.  Pacino has yet to develop his eNUNciaATING and gives a wistful performance that occasionally opens up for some show-stopping, yet believable silliness (he has a killer method of distracting a clerk from Hackman’s shoplifting).  He plays Francis, an AWOL sailor who believes that you can get anything you want if you make people laugh.  Francis meets up with Max (Hackman), an ex-con from San Quentin who’s always pontificating about the importance of investing your money.  See, Max isn’t just hitchhiking to sightsee America; he plans on opening a carwash and Francis tags along to reunite with his family.  The characters are sketched with their belongings: Max has a beat-up suitcase and ledger while Francis carries around a gift-wrapped lamp for a child he’s never seen.  He doesn’t know if it’s a boy or a girl so he figures that a lamp will work either way.

The only noticeable false step is the occasional overacting by the supporting cast.  See for your very own eyes Pacino underact a scene with a histrionic ex-wife!  It’s shocking what he can do with a mute look rather than eyeball rolling.  Hackman’s anger builds slowly, but you eventually see his character shed his defenses (and his clothes) as he grows closer to Pacino.

Working with legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Schatzberg wisely chooses an anamorphic frame to not only capture the decaying industrial vistas but also to fit two gifted actors in the same frame.  Both compete noticeably without showing off and occasionally crack the other up with an improv.  In a long, uninterrupted take, Pacino and Hackman create a continent of subtext while eating breakfast at a diner. 

Warner Brothers shows admirable commitment for a movie few people have ever seen.  In its first-ever widescreen release, the Scarecrow looks great, with Zsigmond’s washed-out grainy image effectively realized.  Scarecrow captures two actors at the top of their game in a virtually plot-less film about the human need for grand schemes and friends to implement them.  American cinema of the 70s was fertile ground for its great directors, but it was also broad enough to allow the non-geniuses like Schatzberg, Sidney Pollack, and Alan J. Pakula to create works of great integrity and personal expression.

Turner Classic Movies   John M. Miller

In the rich and varied landscape of early 1970s American movies, there were bound to be some releases that were neglected in the day and are now ripe for reconsideration. While not a buried treasure, Scarecrow (1973) is at least a pleasant find, and holds significance for being the only pairing to date of two of the most notable actors of the era. Gene Hackman had just won the Best Actor Oscar® in the previous year for The French Connection, while Al Pacino had just appeared in The Godfather (1972), and his Serpico (1973) would be released later in the year.

The script for Scarecrow was by first-time screenwriter Garry Michael White. It tips its hand all too often (the meaning of the "scarecrow" of the title is brought up early and casually discussed by the characters throughout), but it otherwise provides that sort of loose framework that actors love to grab and run with. Well, perhaps the framework is a bit too loose - like Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), the storyline is intentionally sparse, although the characters are not the ciphers that populate that film. Max (Hackman) has just gotten out of prison, and Francis (Pacino) has just returned from sea, when they meet while hitchhiking on opposite sides of the road. They decide to travel together. Max instantly renames Francis "Lionel" because "Francis" sounds like a girl's name. Max is headed to Pittsburgh, where he has been sending his prison wages and plans to open a car wash; Lionel wants to personally deliver a gift to Detroit, to the son or daughter that he has never seen. They hook up on the Northern California coast, and in the best road movie tradition, the journey is the focus. There are stops in bars and diners, a layover in Colorado with Coley (Dorothy Tristan) and Frenchy (Ann Wedgeworth), and a stint at a prison work farm.

Scarecrow was lovingly shot by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who helped define the look of early 1970s New Hollywood, in films like McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Deliverance (1972), and The Long Goodbye (1973). Director Jerry Schatzberg was a former magazine photographer, and he and Zsigmond obviously took great pains in creating the look of the film; the care in capturing dust wafting through morning sunlight practically gives a literal meaning to the term "road picture"! Schatzberg's previous film was Pacino's breakout feature, The Panic in Needle Park (1971).

For all of the gorgeous photography, Scarecrow is primarily an actor's film ? there are frequent long takes, in which the players are allowed room for improvisation. This can lead to an uneven quality and to the occasional indulgence, however, as when a nonsensical ad-lib by Hackman at the end of a five-minute shot is left in the film. Several other scenes are memorable tour-de-forces; Max is prone to break out in fights, but eventually tries out Lionel's preferred method of disarming violent situations - with humor. The resulting scene, in which Hackman performs a striptease, is nothing less than a hoot. For his part, Pacino makes the most of a scene in which Francis is supposed to create a diversion in a store so that Max can shoplift.

Upon initial release, Scarecrow shared the Palmes D'Or with Alan Bridges' The Hireling (1973) at the Cannes Film Festival, but opened in the States to lukewarm reviews and less-than-stellar boxoffice. It's a shame that it never quite found its audience ? despite a slight script and a sometimes indulgent director, Scarecrow delivers strong performances from two of the essential actors of the decade, and is a worthy entry next to the powerhouse films listed on either side of it in Hackman and Pacino's respective filmographies.

The DVD presents a nearly blemish-free 2:40:1 widescreen transfer and a fine mono soundtrack. The only extras are a trailer (as trailers go, the print quality is quite nice), and an all-too-short vintage featurette called "On the Road with Scarecrow." The picture quality of the short is awful, but it contains some alternate take versions of a couple of scenes in the film and a few intriguing behind-the-scenes shots, including one of director Schatzberg and cinematographer Zsigmond manning the camera car as it follows Hackman and Pacino hitching a ride on a hay truck. At less than four minutes, the featurette is a tease, pointing out that this DVD package cries out for some historical context. A commentary track would have been a welcome addition, since Scarecrow was apparently filmed in continuity as the actors and crew traveled across the country, no doubt generating many potential behind-the-scenes stories along the way.

Epinions [metalluk]


The Onion A.V. Club [Nathan Rabin]   Jennifer


Movie House Commentary  Johnny Web


DVD Verdict [Ryan Keefer]


Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times


Read the New York Times Review »  Vincent Canby


New DVD's  Dave Kehr from the New York Times [Gary W. Tooze]



USA  (119 mi)  1980  ‘Scope


Time Out


Schatzberg might be a very urban cowboy (Panic in Needle Park, Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Sweet Revenge, etc), but there's no evidence here of slick, Altman-style condescension to country 'n' western culture. Instead there's an unforced equation of the upfront emotional currency of C&W lyrics with a simple triangular plotline pared down from Intermezzo (singer Nelson and wife Cannon almost come apart over the lure of the road and one more infidelity). Nothing new under the sun - but the easy-going fringe benefits are well worth the ticket: Nelson's a natural, and the duets with Cannon are pure gold.


Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

The plot of Willie Nelson's "Honeysuckle Rose" is just a slight touch familiar, maybe because it's straight out of your basic country and western song. To wit: The hero, a veteran country singer still poised at the brink of stardom after 25 years on the road, won't listen to his wife's pleas that he leave the road and settle down with her and their son. Meanwhile, the band's guitarist, who is also the singer's best friend, retires. A replacement is needed, and the singer hires the best friend's daughter.

She is a shapely young lady who has had a crush on the singer since she was knee high to a grasshopper. Once they go out on the road again, the singer and the best friend's daughter start sleeping with one another. This situation causes anguish for the singer, the daughter, the best friend, the wife, the son and the band. But after going down to Mexico to slug back some tequila and think it over, the singer returns to his wife and the best friend's daughter wisely observes: "Anythang that hurts this many people can't be right."

This story is totally predictable from the opening scenes of "Honeysuckle Rose," which is a certain disappointment; the movie is sly and entertaining, but it could have been better. Still, it has its charms, and one is certainly the presence of Willie Nelson himself, making his starring debut at the age of 47 and not looking a day over 60. He's grizzled, grinning, sweet-voiced and pleasant, and a very engaging actor. (He gave promise of that with a single one-liner in his screen debut in "Electric Horseman," expressing his poignant desire for the kind of girl who could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch.)

The movie also surrounds Nelson with an interesting cast: Dyan Cannon is wonderful as Willie's long-suffering wife, a sexy 40ish earth-woman with streaked hair and a wardrobe from L. L. Bean. She survives the test of her big scene, an archetypal C&W confrontation in which she charges onstage to denounce her husband and his new girlfriend.

Amy Irving is not quite so well cast as the girlfriend; she has too many scenes in which she gazes adoringly at Willie - who, on the other hand, hardly ever gazes adoringly at her. Slim Pickens, who should be registered as a national historical place, is great as the best friend. And there is a hilarious bit part, a fatuous country singer, played by (it says here) Mickey Rooney, Jr.

Mercifully, the movie doesn't drag out its tale of heartbreak into a C&W soap opera. Instead, director Jerry Schatzberg ("Scarecrow") uses an easy-going documentary style to show us life on the band bus, at a family reunion, and backstage at big concerts. All of these scenes are filled to overflowing with colors; this is one of the cheeriest, brightest looking movies I've ever seen, starting with Willie's own amazing costumes and including the spectrum at the concerts, reunions, picnics, etc. Half the movie seems to be shot during parties, and although we enjoy the texture and detail we sometimes wonder why so little seems to be happening.

The movie remains resolutely at the level of superficial cliché, resisting any temptation to make a serious statement about the character's hard-drinking, self-destructive lifestyle; this isn't a movie like "Payday," in which Rip Torn recreated the last days of the dying Hank Williams. "Honeysuckle Rose" has the kind of problems that can be resolved with an onstage reconciliation in the last scene: Willie and Dyan singing a duet together and everybody knowing things will turn out all right.

If there's an edge of disappointment coming out of the movie, maybe it's inspired by that simplicity of approach to complicated problems. Willie Nelson has lived a long time, experienced a lot and suffered a certain amount on his way to his current success, and my hunch is that he knows a lot more about his character's problems in this movie than he lets on. Maybe the idea was to film the legend and save the man for later.

Read the New York Times Review »   Janet Maslin

Southern Fictions   Coal Miner's Daughter, Honeysuckle Rose, The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia: Taking the class out of country, by Mary Bufwack from Jump Cut

Schell, Maximilian



Switzerland  Germany  Israel  (98 mi)  1973

Journalists investigate an aging German industrialist (Gustav Rudolf Sellner) who may have been responsible for the massacre of a Greek village during World War II.

In his second directorial effort, Maximilian Schell tackled the enormous, daunting topic of post-war German guilt. The story itself isn’t entirely successful: it wanders off into too many disparate, didactic directions, and Schell relies too heavily on stylized flashbacks. Yet there are many quietly powerful moments — as when Giese suddenly begins to reflect on the potential folly of his wartime acts, and tells a bedtime story to his grandson:

“Where must I go to find happiness?” the boy said.
“Happiness?” Death said. “Come with me.”

While Giese’s grandson goes happily to sleep at the end of the story, it’s evident that Giese himself — regardless of his sense of guilt — will never be quite the same. Ultimately, The Pedestrian comes to the sticky conclusion, voiced by a journalist towards the end of the film, that while “there may not be collective guilt, there should be collective shame.”

Responses to The Pedestrian   Walking to the sounds of different drummers, by Evan Pattak from Jump Cut


The New York Times (Vincent Canby)


Scherfig, Lone


Lone Scherfig Biography - Yahoo! Movies   Rose of Sharon Winter from All Movie Guide

Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig is part of the Dogme 95 film movement, which espouses a form of #92;cinéma vérité that eschews special effects and glitzy treatment of its subjects. Cameras are handheld; films are shot on location with no extraneous props or atmospheric music. This is all part of the group's renowned, so-called "Vow of Chastity." Employing the principles of Dogme 95, Scherfig made Italian for Beginners in 2001. The film won the Silver Bear juried prize at the Berlin Film Festival, and has enjoyed accolades from audiences in Europe and America, where the director made a special version minus the Danish inside jokes. The #92;romantic comedy -- a new direction for the normally serious Dogme 95 -- centers around a group of disparate people in Copenhagen, who meet to learn the Italian language. Relationships form; romances blossom; the story unfolds with ever increasing complications and convolutions, hinting at the complexities of love. The love angle may reflect a female sensibility, something that Scherfig brings to the otherwise all-male Dogme 95 group, who invited her to join them. She has been quoted as saying that since she has made soap operas for television, she knew how to avoid crossing that line between tragi-comic and maudlin when writing the script for the film. Indeed, while the movie touches upon many serious subjects such as loss through suicide and divorce, it has a feel-good, light quality about it. Italian for Beginners, shot on a budget of less than a million dollars using local settings, has brought the former Danish Film School teacher recognition from prestigious film festivals and Hollywood alike. That positive regard eluded her while working on several previous feature films, including On Our Own, as well as some forgettable sitcoms, such as Taxa, for Danish television. Since the success of Italian for Beginners in America, Hollywood has beckoned. So far, Scherfig has resisted Tinsel Town's siren call, preferring her quiet life and garden by the sea in Denmark with her husband and daughter.

'An Education' director Lone Scherfig doesn't go by the book - Los ...   Kenneth Turan from The LA Times, January 20, 2009


Lone Scherfig Gets "An Education" - MORE Magazine  Paula Schwartz from More magazine, October 2009


An Interview: Lone Scherfig | Slant Magazine  Adam Keleman interview from Slant magazine, October 6, 2009


Interview: An Education's Lone Scherfig And Nick Hornby  Katie Rich interview from Cinema Blend, October 12, 2009


Melissa Silverstein: Interview with Lone Scherfig - Director of An ...  Melissa Silverstein interview from The Huffington Post, October 20, 2009


[Exclusive Interview] Lone Scherfig on An Education | Atomic Popcorn  Jack Giroux interview from Atomic Popcorn, October 26, 2009


MakingOf - Filming Now - An Education - Exclusive Interview with ...    on YouTube (7:41)


Exclusive Interview: An Education Director Lone Scherfig  Katie Rich video interview from Cinema Blend, October 8, 2009 on YouTube (14 minutes)


Lone Scherfig - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS                                  B+                   92

Denmark  Sweden  (112 mi)  2000


Time Out review

There's some mileage yet in the Dogme franchise. Shot on some of the same locations as Dancer in the Dark, this immensely likeable movie about six unhappy loners eking out an existence in a dead end town starts in bleak fashion, but once the losers start attending evening classes in Italian, the mood begins to lighten. By the final reel, the film has turned into something approaching a conventional romantic comedy. Scherfig (the first woman to direct a Dogme movie) denies that she was trying to serve up a fairytale ending. 'I just hope people who see the film can see the possibility of turning a not so good fate into a slightly better one,' she says.

Philadelphia City Paper (Sam Adams) review  also an interview with the director Lone Scherfig  February 2002

Departing from the gloom-and-doom outlook characteristic of almost every movie made under the Dogma manifesto, Italian for Beginners practically defines the word "charming," so light and blithe is Lone Scherfig’s winning romantic comedy. True, there’s a hefty dose of familial dysfunction and personal angst, but they’re only obstacles to the inevitably rosy conclusion. Revolving around a Italian-language class where the film’s characters all meet, Italian is a roundelay of finely-tuned bittersweet comic performances, from Peter Gantzler’s sweetly oafish hotel manager to Lars Kaalund’s volcano-tempered soccer obsessive. It doesn’t aim for the grandiose statements of Dogma’s other films, but Italian for Beginners does everything it sets out to do. (Frank Ochieng) review [4/5]  also seen here:  Frank Ochieng review [4/5]

Danish writer-director Lone Scherfig’s durable and spunky romantic comedy Italian for Beginners is an intoxicatingly spry and entertaining romantic comedy produced under the auspices of Lars Von Trier’s Dogme 95 guidelines. (Scherfig holds the distinction of being the first female filmmaker to helm a film under the Dogme 95 manifesto.)

The film takes place in a squalid Copenhagen suburb where emotions and anxiety seemingly run amok. While the actual narrative is simplistic, it profiles six desperately needy and complicated individuals looking to fulfill themselves. When a recently widowed (and young) pastor named Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen) arrives on the scene to take over the duties for a wayward congregation, he finds himself catering to the interests of a half dozen disillusioned individuals trying to make sense out of their empty lives.

Just as life shoots uncontrollable twists and turns at these folks, the characters also turn their attention into mastering the Italian tongue. The focus is meant to ease their frustrations over life and love, to the point where the “beginners” literally beg for a whole new beginning. Conquering the foreign language is a metaphor for the mending of a broken heart or the escape from the vicious circle of daily life. And yet the universe ends up completely in balance.

The highlight of the story is simply watching the six intertwining lives. Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund) is the obnoxiously funny sports bar manager ordered to get a haircut by the big brass of his business. It’s on this trip to get his hair trimmed that he meets and falls for the local hairdresser named Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen). Karen, in turn, is the sibling of a clumsy-minded bakery employee named Olympia (Anette Støvelbæk). Olympia, it turns out, has an immense crush on her pastor Andreas, who tries to console her about her apparent awkwardness. Meanwhile, pesky hotel manager Jorgen (Peter Gantzler) has a selfish reason for needing to learn the Italian verbiage: He’s smitten with an Italian waitress named Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen) and wants to score points by impressing her with his new tongue.

Scherfig’s light-hearted profile of emotional desperation is achingly honest and delightfully cheeky. She also manages to follow the Dogme restrictions (handheld camera only, utilization of natural light and sound, absence of a soundtrack, etc.) and gets them to work in her favor. The performances are solid, and Sherfig elevates a simple romantic comedy beyond Hollywood cliché. Consequently, Sherfig’s project is tautly realized, swinging wildly between tragic and comic. Just like life.

The Wall Street Journal (Joe Morgenstern) review

Although movies at their best are a shared experience, I just had a fine time by myself, in a small screening room on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, watching a captivating romantic comedy from Denmark called "Italian for Beginners." And I was not, as it turned out, the only happy singleton on the premises. As soon as the film was over, the projectionist, Walter, who is also the room's proprietor, came bounding out of the booth, saw the smile on my face and said impulsively: "Wasn't that great?" Projectionists rarely enthuse about what they project, but, having taken the words out of my mouth, Walter added a few good ones of his own: "There's a breeze blowing through it!"

Please understand that "Italian for Beginners" is no masterpiece. My friend the projectionist wasn't speaking of greatness, only great-ness, and the last thing I want to do is oversell a shortish (100 minutes), unpretentious, subtitled, low-to-subterranean-budget film about six youngish men and women looking for love -- and learning Italian -- in the dead of Copenhagen's winter. The story gets off to an erratic, almost off-putting start, and it seems, in retrospect, somewhat formulaic in a way that wasn't evident while I was watching it. One could argue further that the climax, which transports the Italian class to Venice for vacation, is more picturesque than organic or wholly plausible, even though it's a lot of fun.

What makes this movie genuinely memorable, however, is its agility, as well as its unforced wisdom and intensity. The writer-director, Lone Sherfig, leaps ever so gracefully from one small revelation to the next, never dwelling on significance, never exploiting emotion or inflating honest sentiment to sentimentality. By the end, her debut feature has generated so much goodwill, such urgent concern for the fate of its characters, that I, for one, would have been perfectly glad to follow the Italian class to Manchuria or Akron.

Those characters are played by a superb ensemble. Anders W. Berthelsen is Andreas, a young pastor whose wife has died. Anette Støvelbæk is Olympia, a bake-shop clerk whose clumsiness makes us laugh until we understand what's behind it. Peter Gantzler's Jørgen, not so young and desperately unsure of himself, falls for Sara Indrio Jensen's Giulia, a very young Italian cook who asks God to "make Jørgen feel the quintessence of love and come over for a glass of Marsala." A strong, astringent actor named Lars Kaalund is Halvfinn, a restaurant manager seething with rage who ministers, in his own turn, to Ann Eleonora Jørgensen's Karen, a beautiful hairdresser in deep distress. (As romantic as the movie often is, I wouldn't bet on Halvfinn and Karen staying together into their sunset years.)

"Italian for Beginners," which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, will be shown in at least 10 other major cities starting Feb. 1. It was shot according to the tenets of Dogma 95, a Danish movement that holds filmmakers to a Spartan simplicity of resources and technique, and it's the first Dogma 95 film to be directed by a woman. I'd say the director's gender matters more than her Dogma. This is a woman's work in the best sense -- empathetic, inferentially erotic and delicately intuitive, as well as fiercely intelligent. The film asks us to be intuitive too, with mysteriously beautiful close-ups of hopeful faces, or people in pain, and with encounters, sometimes passionate and sometimes faintly absurd, that are fraught with deeper meaning: Andreas telling Olympia that her coat is buttoned wrong, Jørgen disclosing his fear and proclaiming his love to Giulia, who is enchanted, even though -- or maybe because -- she doesn't understand a word of his Danish.

Distinctive little movies like this one have no discernible impact on mainstream studio production. Like literary novels, they're increasingly consigned to a niche that is more admired than supported; if "Italian for Beginners" is lucky, it may sell as many tickets in this country in the course of a month as some megamoolah monstrosities sell in a day. Yet Ms. Sherfig's lovely film manages to do what so many drearily predictable studio productions cannot. It opens itself to more than a breeze. It lets life in.

Nick's Flick Picks (Nick Davis) review [C]


The Village Voice [J. Hoberman]  (Page 2)


PopMatters  Todd R. Ramlow


ReelViews (James Berardinelli) review [3/4] (John Nesbit) review [4/5]


DVD Savant (Glenn Erickson) dvd review


SPLICEDwire (Rob Blackwelder) review [3.5/4] (Avril Carruthers) review (Andrew Howe) review [3/5]


The Onion A.V. Club [Scott Tobias]


Slant Magazine review  Ed Gonzalez


The Filmsnobs (James Owen) review


Edwin Jahiel review


One Guy's Opinion (Frank Swietek) review [B+], Choices for the Cognoscenti review  Arthur Lazere [Steven Flores]


Film Freak Central review  Walter Chaw


DVD Times  Mark Boydell


Xiibaro Productions (David Perry) review [3/4]


Movie Martyr (Jeremy Heilman) review [2.5/4]


Harvey S. Karten review (Sasha Stone) review


The Land of Eric (Eric D. Snider) review [A-]


Isthmus (Kent Williams) review


Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson) review


Film Journal International (Eric Monder) review


Exclaim! review  Chris Wodskou


Eye for Film (Angus Wolfe Murray) review [2/5] review  Nancy Semin


Brilliant Observations on 1173 Films [Clayton Trapp]


Entertainment Weekly review [C]  Owen Gleiberman


Variety (Eddie Cockrell) review


BBC Films review  Laura Bushell


Guardian/Observer review


Washington Post (Ann Hornaday) review


Austin Chronicle (Marjorie Baumgarten) review [3/5]


Seattle Post-Intelligencer review  Paula Nechak


The Seattle Times (Moira Macdonald) review


San Francisco Chronicle (Carla Meyer) review


Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan) review


Movie review, 'Italian for Beginners'  Michael Wilmington from The Chicago Tribune


Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) review [3/4]


The New York Times (Stephen Holden) review


WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF                 A-                    94

Denmark  United Kingdom  Sweden  France  (109 mi)  2002  ‘Scope 


Another film that's better than the reviews, a wonderfully paced, brilliantly directed look at the simultaneously humorous and tragic goings on with Wilbur, who from the opening moments of the film really is trying to kill himself, and keeps it up throughout the film.  Rather than Bud Cort’s crying out for help, comic, pretend suicides in HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971), these suicides really are designed to end his life, but someone or something always stops him, usually his well-intentioned brother who tries his best to look after him.  James Sives, the droopy-eyed Wilbur, is infectiously appealing, and his incessant suicide attempts are drop dead hilarious, as he’ll find suicide opportunities lurking around every corner.  What changes is he meets someone who changes his mind, the equally quirky Shirley Henderson, who provides him with a reason to keep on living, even before he realizes this himself.  The emotional entanglements are fun and real and there are some wonderfully tender moments in this film that seem to come out of nowhere.  It’s an offbeat, inventive script with characters who matter and who can sustain our interest throughout.  This is another terrific ensemble piece from the witty female director of ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS (2000). 
Time Out review

When he's not in group therapy, Wilbur (Sives) is plotting the next in a series of suicide attempts. His brother Harbour (Rawlins) tries to keep him safe, but he has a lot on his plate worrying about the dilapidated Glasgow bookshop inherited from their deceased father. A regular customer is Alice (Henderson), who makes a few pennies selling books left by patients at the hospital where she works to support her 11-year-old daughter. Such is this romantic comedy from the director of Italian for Beginners. Romance because Harbour marries Alice even though he knows she has a thing for Wilbur, and comedy because all concerned share a bitter wit that helps them get through it all. That's the idea, but it doesn't play. It's a Danish-Scottish co-production, scripted by Scherfig in an English that never quite rings true, and blending Glasgow exteriors with Danish studio work in a way that leaves the film without a genuine sense of place. The performers give everything asked of them, but the downplayed emotions and enveloping brackish colour scheme make this the celluloid equivalent of a fish tank where the water is in serious need of changing.

The Wall Street Journal (Joe Morgenstern) review

"Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself" is the first English-language feature by the Danish director Lone Scherfig, who did a lovely comedy called "Italian for Beginners" a couple of years ago. This new one is a beauty, though I must register three reservations. While the language is technically English, the setting is contemporary Glasgow, and the Scottish accents can be confounding; at times I would have welcomed the subtitles that graced another Glaswegian tale not long ago, Ken Loach's "Sweet Sixteen." My other misgivings concern the off-putting title and the title character, whose comically suicidal impulses have become a cliché since "Harold and Maude." All of that said, Ms. Scherfig's new film is full of life -- which is a very good thing to say about a story that turns on death -- wonderfully odd, and a gallery of perfect performances.

Wilbur, who is played by Jamie Sives, has tried to kill himself so many times that he gets kicked out of his suicide support group. Suicide is a hostile act, and Wilbur is as hostile as they come, especially to women. His brother, Harbour (Adrian Rawlins), is as sweet as they come, and it would seem to be a cause for rejoicing when he falls for Alice, a single mother played by Shirley Henderson. But the two brothers become rivals in love, like Jules and Jim, and Ms. Henderson, who has the most distinctive voice on the screen since Joan Greenwood, turns Alice quite magically into a rueful, reflective Catherine. Nothing develops as expected in "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself." Still, there's a strange and delicate sense of things working out as they should.

Killing Me Softly   Geoffrey Macnab from Sight and Sound, December 2003

A fairytale-like exploration of love and death set in Glasgow, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself plays like a Scottish Jules et Jim.

"When you were dead, what was it like?"
"Dull as ditchwater... there's nothing. Just blackness and utter silence. It's like being in Wales."

Wilbur (Jamie Sieves), the Glaswegian protagonist of Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, may be determined to take his own life, but he's also personable and engaging, a womaniser who's good with kids and always ready with mildly sarcastic repartee. It's typical of his gallows humour that he can't describe his latest suicide attempt without throwing in a dig at the Welsh.

And what's so disconcerting about Wilbur the film, Danish writer-director Lone Scherfig's first in English, is that despite its ostensibly grim subject matter, it plays like a comedy. The main setting is North Books, a musty second-hand bookshop owned by Wilbur's relentlessly optimistic brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins). One of his regular customers is Alice (Shirley Henderson), a cleaner working nights wiping up blood and mucus at the local hospital. She sells Harbour the books she picks up from dying patients. When she loses her job, the ever-gallant, ever-cheerful Harbour ends up marrying her. He's devoted to her precocious 11-year-old daughter Mary (Lisa McKinlay) and they'd be a happy family if it weren't for Wilbur's incessant suicide attempts. And there's an added complication: Harbour is oblivious to or has chosen to ignore the obvious attraction between his new wife and his suicidal younger brother, whom she meets when she saves him from hanging. Indeed, Harbour is so devoted to his sibling you half guess he'd encourage the affair if it made Wilbur happy and stopped him from trying to knock himself off.

Wilbur is deeply immature. Scherfig admits that when her psychologist husband first saw the film he was exasperated by the young lead's wilful behaviour. "My husband reacted like a lot of people do, saying, 'Why is he so childish, why won't he grow up?'" It's a testament to Jamie Sieves' performance that we don't take against this most self-indulgent of characters. He underplays, treating each of Wilbur's suicide attempts in a matter-of-fact way, as if killing himself is some sort of domestic chore he hasn't yet mastered. Adrian Rawlins is equally laidback as Harbour. There are touches of melodrama here - the final hug between the brothers, a sequence in a snow-filled graveyard - but neither Scherfig nor her cast is much interested in big emotional set-pieces. Grief is treated in surprisingly discreet fashion.

Rawlins, who was talent-spotted by Lars von Trier's girlfriend when he was playing a bit part in the television cop series The Bill and was subsequently cast in Breaking the Waves, acknowledges that Scherfig's approach was always low-key. "But Jamie Sieves, Shirley Henderson and myself are all quiet people... we didn't need to make a great effort to show we were bonding. There was a gentle intimacy about the whole way the film was set up."

Scherfig, he suggests, was determined to "make the audience do some of the work." The script is deliberately unemotional, without characters wailing or breaking down in hysterics, whatever straits they're in. "That's the beauty and dignity of the film," Rawlins suggests. "It has a light touch. It straddles tragedy and humour very delicately. In the wrong hands, it could have been a heavy piece."

On one level Wilbur can be seen as a deadpan, northern European answer to Truffaut's Jules et Jim, with Alice as the woman caught between two men. She starts the film as if she's so numbed by grief and boredom her feelings have ossified. Her one concern is her young daughter, whom she's helped to save several thousand pounds for the "rainy day" she's sure will come. Scherfig deliberately withholds her backstory: we don't know who fathered her child or what she did before she took her dead-end job in the hospital. For the brothers, she's like a fairytale princess. She lightens the oppressive atmosphere at North Books while they help prise her from her shell.

The challenge for the director was not to allow the film to drift into whimsy or mawkishness. After all, the subject matter is very grim. The observational humour and dryly sardonic one-liners can't disguise the themes of cancer, suicide and bereavement. Indeed death, in one form or another, underpins almost every scene. We hear Harbour reminiscing about his (not so long dead) father. Wilbur's enthusiasm for suicide stems, it is inferred, from his conviction that his father never really loved him. We see Wilbur sitting in a suicide-recovery group, where various other malcontents struggle to think of reasons to stay alive. Even the minor characters have had their brushes with death: gloomy Danish psychiatrist Horst (Mads Mikkelsen) is still sore at his father for having his dog put down. ("If only my dog had been ill, I would have been able to understand it.") When Harbour is busy cooking roast duck in the kitchen, it takes a moment or two to realise he's gathering up the various implements to stop Wilbur from using them to slit his wrists.

Wilbur's suicide attempts invariably end in bathos. When he jumps into the river the water is too shallow. When he tries to hang himself he ends up with such a badly injured neck he has to wear a bandage that makes him look like a medieval doge. The central irony is that while he can't cast off life, however hard he tries, his brother - who cherishes it - struggles to hold on to it.

Scherfig's previous film Italian for Beginners (2000), made under Dogme rules, played similar games with narrative and audience expectation. Set in a dead-end Danish town, it was a tale of six losers who find relief from their depressing and dysfunctional lives by enrolling for Italian lessons. To Scherfig's surprise, the film (a Silver Bear-winner at the Berlinale) was treated by critics and audiences as a romantic comedy. Wilbur is even darker thematically, but likewise uses comedy at incongruous moments. Ultimately it seems more akin to a fairytale than to a psycho-drama about death.

"I just thought that the next logical move after Italian for Beginners would be to get closer to the characters and to put them in more serious situations," Scherfig says. So she and her co-screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen took a "mechanical" approach to their task. "All the characters are constructed from a view on life. Moira the nurse sees herself as put on this Earth because she has a mission and it's very important that she's here. The psychiatrist Horst has the inner conviction that life is not worth living. Harbour lives for others and through others. Alice is almost dead. She doesn't have a life.... It's a very good routine for sorting out a script. Then you add all the spark and all the fun."

The film was shot on location in Glasgow and at the Zentropa studios in Denmark. The Danes were initially sceptical about one of their most prominent directors making an English-language film in Scotland. ("They feel I'm like some of our football players - suddenly playing for Glasgow Rangers!") Nonetheless, this is only one of a growing number of Scottish-Danish co-productions being hatched.

Whether or not Wilbur offers an accurate portrayal of life in present-day Glasgow, it avoids what Scherfig calls the "Scottish clichés of people drinking and swearing and having rotten teeth." Looking back, she wonders if she strayed just a bit too far from street-level realism. "But I can forgive myself for all this romance by saying that I could only make this film because Ken Loach has done all the work he has done and Irvine Welsh has written Trainspotting. I had the privilege of serving the dessert."   

Jon Popick review [Annlee Ellingson]

Mixed Reviews: The Arts, The World, and More (Jill Cozzi) review

Nitrate Online (Dan Lybarger) review (John Nesbit) review [4/5]

Film Journal International (Kevin Lally) review (Pete Croatto) review [3.5/5]

The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray] (Shari L. Rosenblum) review

Eye for Film (Angus Wolfe Murray) review [3.5/5]

here  Lost in Translation, Neil Young from Jigsaw Lounge

DVD Town (Justin Cleveland) dvd review

Future Movies (Jay Richardson) review [8/10] review  David N. Butterworth

Shadows on the Wall (Rich Cline) review

Movie Habit (Marty Mapes) review [3/4]

Village Voice (J. Hoberman) review

Urban Cinefile review  Andrew L. Urban and Louise Keller, also an interview with lead actor:  JAMIE SIVES INTERVIEW

sneersnipe (David Perilli) review

Film Threat, Hollywood's Indie Voice dvd review [3.5/5]  Daniel Wible

Cinema Signals (Jules Brenner) review [4/4]

ViewLondon (Matthew Turner) review [4/5]

PopMatters (Daniel Mudie Cunningham) review

Movie Gazette (Anton Bitel) review [6/10]

DVD Talk (Daniel W. Kelly) dvd review [2/5]

KQEK (Mark R. Hasan) dvd review

The Land of Eric (Eric D. Snider) review [B-]

Eye for Film (Jennie Kermode) review [3.5/5]

Movie Reviews with Joan Ellis review

Film Monthly (Coco Delgado) review review  Stuart Wilson (Stephen Groenewegen) review [1/5]  mawkish nosedive into simpering disease-of-the-week territory, Scherfig proves fellow countryman Lars von Trier hasn’t cornered the market on cinematic martyrdom in the region

Steve Rhodes review [1.5/4]  The movie is consistently unappealing, insufficiently lit, the images are uniformly ugly and washed out. The depressing movie is as devoid of life and energy as it is devoid of much color—only for those who have been complaining that their lives have been too sunny lately

Entertainment Weekly review [C-]  Owen Gleiberman

Variety (Lisa Nesselson) review

BBCi - Films  Jamie Russell

Guardian/Observer review

Boston Globe review [2/4]  Ty Burr

Austin Chronicle (Kimberley Jones) review [3.5/5]

San Francisco Chronicle [Ruthe Stein]

Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) review [3/4]

At The Movies (Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper) reviewVideo  (video)

The New York Times (A.O. Scott) review

Fipresci [Antonia Kovacheva]  Award winner


Denmark  (97 mi)  2007  ‘Scope 

User comments  from imdb Author: vbaadh from United States

We just saw this film at the San Francisco Film Festival, and it was wonderful..charming, intimate, funny, genuine, a real successful ensemble piece with a little mystery and sex for good measure. Worth going to see, for everyone. We had awful seats, in the second row, and still enjoyed the film, although I can't recommend sitting so close for your eyes switching back and forth between the subtitles and the full screen. But that wasn't the fault of the film, more ours for a late start and assuming it wouldn't be a full house. Wrong! And, isn't Danish a weird language? Often in a foreign film one can sort of follow the language and the text and can find a rhythm of them going together, but that doesn't work that way with Danish. Overall, a very fun film that I'd love to see again and I highly recommend it.

Moving Pictures Magazine [Elliot V. Kotek]

If Danish director Lone Scherfig has a gift, it's in turning teams of actors into an endearing ensemble whose relationships exist as sincerely onscreen as if in reality. Scherfig, as evidenced in this film as well as in her breakout Italiensk for Begyndere (Italian for Beginners) (a winner at Berlin, Warsaw and Paris film festivals, amongst many other accolades), finds misfits and lonely individuals helping each to find their voice, to find an open ear and to find the power in investing time and attention to their own community.

Scherfig's portrait of a small town grappling with its conservative façade in the midst of chaos caused by a streaker, bathes in its soft hues and soft lighting, and leads its litany of off-beat archetypes towards transparency of purpose and, in the process, liberates the townsfolk of their secrets, their reservations and their clothing.

Scherfig, like the masterful Ken Loach (whose It's a Free World... is also playing at Toronto), scripts her scenes (on this occasion with co-writer Niels Hausgaard) on location, allowing the actors to influence the direction of the dialogue and embracing the unpredictability of the unexpected. This method, seemingly suited to breeding confusion, instead delivers clarity by allowing the actors to slowly strip away their layers of pretense, and to grow familiar enough with each other that eventually their bare souls sit on display.

If you can get through all the A-list talent at the festival, and want to be surprised by a cinematic exploration that touches the heart, Just Like Home may be your life-line.

Variety (Eddie Cockrell) review

So doggedly wry it borders on insular, improvised small-town dramedy "Just Like Home" is another leisurely look at a gaggle of quirky characters from Lone Scherfig, helmer of "Italian for Beginners" and "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself." Remarkably, pic doesn't play like improv, with the game cast giving focus and relative depth to characters and situations made up more or less on the spot. Yet the story doesn't really go anywhere, so payoff is negligible. Gossamer-thin redux of Scherfig's shtick is more appropriate for fests and cable than theatrical.

Written on the fly and shot chronologically, pic shows the reactions of repressed locals to dubious news from pompous Lindy (Peter Hesse Overgaard) that a streaker's been spotted in town. Pharmacist Jens-Petter (Lars Kaalund) initiates hotline "The Silent Ear" so locals can speculate, but service only ratchets up speculation. Scherfig is to be applauded for the stretching bounds of narrative conception; results, such as this odd petrie dish of a pic, can't be expected to hit the mark every time. Supple tech support is unobtrusive.

AN EDUCATION                                                     B                     88

Great Britain  (95 mi)  2009  ‘Scope


I’ve always liked this Danish director’s style, as her actors always feel so comfortable, where you can count on intelligent things coming out of their mouths, occasionally witty, at times profound, and almost always entertaining, as if we’re interrupting a realistic slice of life happening somewhere.  Working in Great Britain, and for the first time using someone else’s script, this lacks the intimacy of her earlier works, and some of the charm, though the performance of Carey Mulligan is enormously appealing.  Scripted by Nick Hornby from the memoirs of British journalist Lynn Barber, the story is set in the London suburbs in 1961 where 16-year old Jenny (Mulligan) is among the best students at her school with excellent prospects of getting into Oxford.  Urged on by her nitpicking, never satisfied father, Alfred Molina, her super intelligent life revolves around developing a prospective college resumé, doing only those activities that will benefit getting accepted, such as playing the cello and struggling with Latin every night.  Filled with an insatiable appetite for the world around her, already a good judge of taste in art, she’s the kind of girl that in mid-sentence breaks into French language without even realizing it.  One day, inexplicably, a man twice her age with a charming smile driving a rare Bristol sports car captures her attention and begins flooding her with attention, even garnering the approval of her usually overly cautious parents to spend time together, even weekends away, all under the ruse that she’ll be staying with a kindly old aunt.  For Jenny, David (Peter Sarsgaard) is too good to be true, whisking her off to Oxford or Paris where the world is literally at her feet. 


Missing school now to accommodate her globetrotting lifestyle, life in her hometown suddenly seems dreary and boring in comparison, where she doesn’t see the point of working so hard in school and missing out on so many of life’s glorious opportunities.  While her instructor (Olivia Williams) and head mistress (Emma Thompson) warn her about the direction she’s taking, potentially throwing away her educational opportunity, the film does an excellent job of placing the role of women in social context, where one could expect a career of dreary repeptition, such as their jobs teaching unmotivated, less than scintillating students, or life in the civil service, so marrying a wealthy beau was still one’s best opportunity, especially considering the whining and whimpering over every single expense from Jenny’s penny pinching father.  While there’s a slow crescendo to Jenny’s eye-opening awakening, where David shares his time with fellow bohemians Danny and Helen, the ascerbic Dominic Cooper and fashion fatale Rosamund Pike, going to concerts, art galleries, the finest restaurants in the world, jazz clubs, all done with the zest of a budding new world, but her real dream is to lose her virginity in Paris on her 17th birthday, a dream her parents unknowingly all but condone.  Despite being drawn into the personal magnetism and warm, energetic style of this movie, one is surprised at the way it resolves itself so happily at the end, really a tacked on false Hollywood ending unfortunately, which all but undercuts everything that came before, suggesting none of it really mattered.     


While the tone of the film is boundless curiosity, effortless grace and joie de vivre, there’s also an underlying tone of maliciousness, not only in Sarsgaard, whose personality is naturally guarded, but in what he does for a living, which is barely touched upon, but when she gets a peek at it, she never takes a second glance, pulled away by the allure of yet another opportunity waiting for her.  It’s easy to lose yourself in this intoxicating worldview, where Jenny suddenly finds herself the equal to her headmistress and instructor, offering worldly opinions based on her own life’s experiences for a change, something none of the other students can do, or even the faculty for that matter, all living in their fixed, insulated worlds.  While there’s something utterly charming about Mulligan and her newfound confidence and swagger, by the end the pace slackens and the tone darkens, becoming less funny and more tragic, as the real tragedy is how Jenny’s parents all but serve up their own daughter on a silver platter under the misguided notion that “You don't need to go to university if you've got a good husband.”  After all the years of tiresome study to get into a prestigious university, to abandon it so completely at the first sign of marriage, the real Lynn Barber came to realize:  “It was as if I'd spent 18 years in a convent and then the Mother Superior had said: 'Of course, you know, God doesn't exist.'”  As it turns out, Jenny’s movie parents are a bit more sympathetic than her own, especially a touching scene by her father, and she never dropped out of school or actually made a trip to Oxford to visit C.S. Lewis, but other than that, the screenplay beautifully captures the drive and touching curiosity of a young girl quickly coming of age, advancing faster than anyone could suspect.  “Memoirs are supposed to begin with ancestors,” Barber writes, “but I don’t have any, because I come from the lower, unremembered, orders on both sides.”  


Time Out Online (Dave Calhoun) review [4/6]

Mulligan – young Brit actress du jour – is reason alone to see this lively Nick Hornby-scripted adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir of growing up in the west London suburbs in the early 1960s. Barber’s schoolgirl alter ego, Jenny, falls into a relationship with the older, more worldly David (Peter Sarsgaard), who offers her a window on a more material world – clubs, champagne, drives in the country, sex – than her Oxbridge ambitions allow. He also charms her wide-eyed parents (Molina, Seymour) with his apparent wealth and wit. Often very funny, it’s also sensitive to how we can often see before our eyes only that which we want – or are trained – to see.

Time Out New York (Keith Uhlich) review [2/6]

Actor Carey Mulligan is filmed like a goddess in An Education. In looks and demeanor, she seems caught between prim elegance and outlaw modishness, appropriately suggesting—in light of the story’s period setting—a ’60s-era Audrey Hepburn. This starlet’s performance is the best reason to see an otherwise jumbled adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir, in which Mulligan’s disaffected British teen, Jenny, has a transformative adolescent experience.

Jenny’s life is a predictable succession of prep-school testing, youth orchestra and parental protestations, until the fateful day when a handsome stranger offers her a lift during a downpour. He’s David (Sarsgaard), a man nearly twice her age, who pours on the charm with all the irresistible come-hitherness of a Tex Avery wolf.

But he’s still a wolf: Fancy dinners and impromptu trips to Paris are the norm, yet there’s something off about David, a creepiness underlying his seeming perfection. Sarsgaard is expert at implied malevolence, though he’s less convincing as a refined man of the world (he’s one of the few performers now working who can be both perfectly cast and miscast).

The bigger problem is the way in which this cautionary coming-of-age tale is told. Lone Scherfig directs it all as if it were a breezy lark, so a third-act tonal shift makes for an incongruous, excessively moralistic fit with everything that’s preceded. Most insulting, though, is the way in which the climactic passages miraculously tidy up every frayed edge of Jenny’s life. Who knew that an Oxford education had the healing power of Lourdes?

The Independent (Geoffrey Macnab) review [4/5]

An Education arrives at the London Film Festival almost a year after its Sundance premiere. Given that this is a London-set film showcasing the best of British talent (Lynn Barber, whose childhood memoirs inspired it, screenwriter Nick Hornby, rising young star Carey Mulligan, Emma Thompson, Alfred Molina and others), it's perverse that UK audiences have had to wait so long to see it.

This is a small film but an acutely well-observed and well-acted one that benefits from Mulligan's performance, sly and affecting by turns, as the teenager growing up in early 1960s London suburbia and having an affair with a much older man. The Sixties revolution hasn't quite happened. We're in that little window of time between "the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP" (to quote poet Philip Larkin). Social and generational change are in the air but, on the outside at least, this is still a repressive era. Middle-class England is full of couples like Jack and Marjorie (Molina and Cara Seymour): fretful, conservative types trying to keep up appearances.

Jenny (Mulligan) is the free-spirited daughter being groomed by Jack and Marjorie for the Oxbridge education they hope will lift her (and them) up the social scale. If Jenny passes her exams and gets into a good university, she stands a better chance of finding the right kind of husband. The plans for Jenny are thrown askew when she is picked up at a bus stop by the debonair David (Peter Sarsgaard), a roué and property developer who loves jazz, art and fine dining. At first, she is utterly enraptured by him. So are her parents. The fact that he may well be having sex with their 16-year-old daughter doesn't bother them at all when he is so wealthy and so well-spoken.

An Education is directed in engagingly idiosyncratic fashion by the Danish film-maker, Lone Scherfig. She brings an outsider's eye to material that would almost certainly have been tackled in far more earnest fashion by a British director. The film touches on some grim aspects of the Britain it depicts: the hidden racism, the ruthlessness of slum landlords, the hypocrisy of the middle classes. There is something queasy about the central relationship, too: this is a story about a middle-aged man preying on a virginal teenage girl. However, Jenny's anarchic spirit is matched by that of the director, who manages to strike a playful and sometimes whimsical note without trivialising the issues.

Jenny may like to think she is a sophisticated, Juliette Gréco-loving young woman about town, but she is really just a schoolgirl who has to wait at bus stops in the rain. Mulligan captures both her precocity and her naiveté.

We're in an England where there is a lot of penny-pinching going on. As the film makes clear again and again, there is a huge gulf between what the characters here aspire to and what they can actually afford. (Chris Barsanti) review [3/5]

When Lone Scherfig's wise, colorful coming-of-age tale An Education was making the festival rounds, all points on the buzz compass were aiming directly at its star, Carey Mulligan, and rightly so. Playing Jenny, the 16 year-old clawing at the strictures of her red-brick-drab London suburb, circa 1961, Mulligan exudes a sparkler-like intellectual charm that never quite manages to hide the confused teenager within. It's frankly all that the film, and its occasionally rote story, can do to keep up with her.

Adapted by Nick Hornby in efficient fashion from Lynn Barber's memoir, An Education starts off like one of those stories about special people who almost get ground down by the system but manage at the last minute to escape -- and write books about it. We see Jenny swanning around the tidy streets of Twickenham, swaddled in the air of the bright girl who is going places. She drops French into her conversations more than really necessary and smokes clandestinely with friends when not drilling herself for the next round of tests that will get her into the cherished (by her father) halls of Oxford. A budding existentialist in knee socks and grey sweaters, dreaming of a life in smoky French cafes and "interesting" films, she's ripe for plucking by the decade-older David (Peter Sarsgaard) when he sees her waiting at a bus stop in the rain. He offers her a lift, and maybe a new life, too.

An imposter in his own skin, with Sarsgaard's skulking manner and hypnotically soothing voice, David is a rare and dangerous kind of film lothario. Although his first appearance sets off all sorts of alarm bells, it's all the viewer can do not to think for a second, "Maybe he does just want to talk." A diamond in Twickenham, David is all that Jenny could ask for at the time. Broadly cultured, a crack conversationalist, possessed of mysterious reserves of cash and no (apparent) job, he takes her to classical concerts, fine restaurants, and nightclubs. David listens intently to what she has to say and doesn't even demand her virginity as payment on all the good times and compliments. The fact that his being Jewish mortifies Jenny's starchy schoolmistress (Emma Thompson) is just a bonus for her.

Given David's ease and off-kilter smoothness, it's hardly a surprise that he's able to sweep into Jenny's cloistered little home and convince her parents (a quiet Cara Seymour and wonderfully stuffy Alfred Molina) to let him run off with him for the weekend (a lie about meeting C.S. Lewis helps). After that, it's all weekends in Paris and an education in the dark underpinnings of David's bright and gay life.

With all this jazzy newness for Jenny to absorb, An Education purrs along like a finely-calibrated machine for its first two thirds. It adds one delight after another into Jenny's life, from the imported cigarettes that she self-importantly puffs at school to the pair of dashing friends (bubbly and anti-intellectual Rosamund Pike and a knife-like Dominic Cooper). The soundtrack hums with the era's hook-heavy pop tunes, adding that extra element of fizz to the gala proceedings -- before the other shoe drops.

When Jenny's bratty bubble of a fantasy starts to pop, there's little satisfaction to be had at her comeuppance – Mulligan is too bright a light here to wish anything bad upon. There is also little wisdom to be gained, as the film ties everything off with a too-easy-by-half coda that borders on the smug. Much like Jenny's baffled parents, the film doesn't quite know what to do with such a promising girl. And if it ultimately lets her down, that could just be because life lets a lot of us down, in the end.

The Wall Street Journal (Joe Morgenstern) review

There are thrillers, and then there are thrillers. No shots are fired in "An Education," and the closest thing to a car chase is a bit of brisk driving after the theft of an old map. Yet this tale of an English schoolgirl's hard-won wisdom is thrilling all the same—for the radiance of Carey Mulligan's Jenny, who's wonderfully smart and perilously tender; for the grace of Lone Scherfig's direction, and the brilliance of Nick Hornby's screenplay, which took its inspiration, in the fullest sense of the word, from a short memoir by Lynn Barber. The film opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles; national release won't begin until Nov. 20. That's a classic distribution strategy to create pent-up demand, but I can't keep my admiration pent up for another six weeks. No movie I've seen in a very long time has touched me so deeply, or bestowed so much pleasure.

The time is 1961, a year before the outbreak of Beatlemania, in a London that Jenny, at the age of 16, finds sedate if not downright sedative. She dreams of romance in France, where intellectuals lionize difficult authors—"Camus doesn't want you to like him," she explains to a less worldly schoolmate—and Juliette Gréco sings poignant songs in a voice the color of Armagnac. (With the Cold War threatening nuclear extinction, French existentialism has a fateful pull.) Jenny's hunger for learning is genuine, even if she has a sweetly pretentious habit of tossing off French phrases at the drop of a chapeau, and her precocity stokes her curiosity when, on a rainy day, a smiling sophisticate twice her age offers her a lift in his elegant car.

His name is David, and he's played by Peter Sarsgaard, whose remarkably nuanced performance is a perfect complement to Ms. Mulligan's. He updates the familiar role of a roué with mysterious ruefulness, along with charm and lively intelligence. It's easy to see why Jenny follows David's lead. As a Jew, he seems exotic. As a man of the world, he offers her the prospect of an education that isn't covered by the syllabus of her private school.

But the movie goes beyond easy explanations, and the conventions of the coming-of-age genre. The filmmakers, led by Mr. Hornby's script, offer a dramatic education on the nature of being young—of wanting to feast on experience without being able to read the menu. Jenny's appetites come up against the limits of her comprehension in a revelatory moment when she speaks to David of a lesson learned in school: " 'Action is character,' our English teacher told us." Her teacher was citing a basic tenet of drama—what people do defines who they are. (It's the tenet that informs the film.) But Jenny misconstrues its meaning—"I think it means if we never did anything we'd never be anybody"—and thereby justifies her heedless plunge into dubious adventures.

"An Education," which was shot by John De Borman and designed by Andrew McAlpine, is a morality tale that often plays like high comedy. That's due in large part to Ms. Mulligan. After seeing the movie last month at the Telluride Film Festival, I wrote that everyone there seemed to be comparing her to Audrey Hepburn. The comparison is irresistible, and not only because Jenny sometimes wears her hair upswept in a Holly Golightly do, or because Hepburn played a young woman opposite an older man in at least three movies—"Sabrina," "Love in the Afternoon" and "My Fair Lady." (In five if you count "Funny Face" and "Charade," neither of which dwelled on the age difference.) Like Hepburn, Ms. Mulligan, who is 24, has a way of endearing herself with little more than a lilting phrase—her speaking voice is as rich as Ms. Gréco's singing voice—or a flashing glance. But it's her own way, and she's her own special edition of a dazzling new star.

The first time I saw her was almost a year ago, in a superb Broadway production of "The Seagull," with a cast that included Mr. Sarsgaard as Trigorin; she played Nina, the sacrificial creature of Chekhov's title. She was electrifying from her first entrance, when Nina speaks of having been in a fever all day, and cries joyously, "The sky is clear, the moon is rising!" Either an actress has the skill to make those extravagant lines her own or she doesn't, and Ms. Mulligan had skill, and passion, to burn.

In "An Education," where she's completely convincing as a 16-year-old—the movie was shot two years ago—she has created a complete original. Jenny is, to toss off a French phrase, always on the qui vive; it's as if she's listening intently to the life around her for clues about how it works. Both her beauty and her agile mind allow her to be precocious without being insufferable. And she isn't merely sufferable, she's admirable for the purity of her responses to culture—Jenny plays the cello as an ardent amateur—if not the clarity of her insights about love. When David takes her and a couple of his philistine friends to a concert, she's the only one who loves the music. (The cello is a magnificent instrument, but I do wish filmmakers would occasionally use another one to signify a lyrical spirit.)

If purity were Jenny's main quality, she, and the movie, would be a bore. No danger of that, though, because her motives are mixed, her gift for deviousness is impressive and she, like her semidrab middle-class parents, becomes complicit in a series of choices that may put an end to her dreams of going to Oxford, and bring down the shining promise of her life before she's ever had a chance to take off.

Her mother, Marjorie (Cara Seymour), has let her own life dwindle to a shrug. But her father, Jack, who's played with sensational verve by Alfred Molina, is full of surprises. His protective instincts, not to mention his resentment of wealth and privilege, fall away when Jenny brings her fancy gentleman friend home. Suddenly Jack is as craven a social climber as John Cleese's Basil in "Fawlty Towers," for he's impressed by David's seeming wealth and chooses to see, purblindly, a chance to marry his daughter off instead of sending her off for an expensive education of questionable value.

Just as Jack is Nick Hornby's instrument for probing issues of class, David is his model of a modern man who pays allegiance to no class, and no tradition. He isn't conventionally evil, though his personality is missing crucial pieces. He simply sees life as opportunities without obligations, and culture as an assortment of commodities. We might wonder why Jenny continues to find David more attractive than his dashing friend and business partner Danny (a supporting performance with star quality by Dominic Cooper), but Mr. Sarsgaard plays him with an eerie equanimity—a kind of pseudo-self-reflection—that reassures the impressionable girl while exciting her, and soon blinds her to whole motorways of warning signs. Unlike Hepburn's Ariane, who had to deal with Gary Cooper's painfully overage Frank in "Love in the Afternoon," Jenny has a lover who's plausible from the start.

'An Education" abounds in marvelous acting. Rosamund Pike, an actress of uncommon intelligence, is Danny's gorgeous, dim-bulb girlfriend, Helen, who can't fathom Jenny's fondness for a foreign language. Emma Thompson is Jenny's headmistress, a haughty woman with a casual scorn for Jews. As Jenny's English teacher, Miss Stubbs, Olivia Williams has a small but pivotal role that she plays with exquisite delicacy. The same is true of Sally Hawkins, even though she's on screen for only a fleeting few moments.

Until now I've discussed all of these performances as if they'd occurred spontaneously, rather than under the guidance of a self-effacing virtuoso. The director, Ms. Scherfig, is Danish, but she is manifestly at home working in English. (Her previous English-language features, both highly recommended, are "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself" and "Italian for Beginners.") Direction can't be seen, but Ms. Scherfig's approach makes itself felt in a sparkling stream of felicitous choices. She's a poet of natural rhythms and intimate insights, and this new film will make her a star in her own realm. What it will do for the movie's star is another matter. One thinks not only of Hepburn, but of Julie Christie bursting upon the world in "Billy Liar." That was a very small role, though. Ms. Mulligan is the heart and soul of "An Education," and she's phenomenal. The whole film is phenomenal. I love it.

Village Voice (Scott Foundas) review

Eye for Film (Amber Wilkinson) review [4.5/5]

The New Yorker (David Denby) review  (Page 2) Arts (Greig Dymond) review

Pajiba (Drew Morton) review

SpoutBlog [Karina Longworth]

Christian Science Monitor (Peter Rainer) review [A-] (Amanda Mae Meyncke) review [A-]

New York Magazine (David Edelstein) review

Time [Richard Corliss]  October 9, 2009 [Stephanie Zacharek]

The Onion A.V. Club review [A-]  Nathan Rabin

Click here to read the rest of Sarah Silver’s review  Reverse Shot

PopMatters (Cynthia Fuchs) review

Slant Magazine review  Ryan Stewart

Screen International review  David D’Arcy

Cinematical (James Rocchi) review

Movie Shark Deblore [debbie lynn elias]

Mark Reviews Movies [Mark Dujsik]

The Flick Filosopher (MaryAnn Johanson) review

The Year of Carey Mulligan  Logan Hill (Peter Sobczynski) review [5/5]

James Bowman review

REVIEW | Sweet and Wonderful: Lone Scherfig's 'An Education ...  Steve Ramos from indieWIRE


Slate (Dana Stevens) review


ReelViews (James Berardinelli) review [3.5/4]


Black Sheep Reviews [Joseph Belanger]


The L Magazine [Henry Stewart]


Ruthless Reviews (potentially offensive)  Matt Cale [Robert Cashill]


Film Monthly (Jef Burnham) review


CompuServe (Harvey S. Karten) review


Film School Rejects [Neil Miller]


Urban Cinefile (Australia) - [Louise Keller + Andrew L. Urban] (Devin Faraci) review


Cinema Autopsy (Thomas Caldwell) review [4/5]


Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson) review


Film Threat, Hollywood's Indie Voice review [4.5/5]  Scott Knopf [Andrew O'Hehir]  The British Indie Explosion, October 8, 2009


Entertainment Weekly review [A-]  Lisa Schwarzbaum


Variety (Todd McCarthy) review


INTERVIEW: THE DOLL WITHIN - Arts & Entertainment - The Independent   Will Self (opening paragraphs) from The Independent, April 25, 1999


"How I suffered for art's sake",   Lynn Barber from The Guardian, October 1, 2006


Lynn Barber on life before feminism  Lynn Barber from The Observer, December 7, 2008


My harsh lesson in love and life   Lynn Barber from The Observer, June 7, 2009


Lynn Barber: 'I know I've done a bad thing' - Telegraph  Elizabeth Grice interviews Lynn Barber about her memoirs from The Telegraph, June 12, 2009


An Education by Lynn Barber: review - Telegraph  Book review of An Education by Lynn Barber (183 pages) by Jane Shilling from The Telegraph, June 18, 2009


An Education, By Lynn Barber - Reviews, Books - The Independent  Book review of An Education by Lynn Barber by Deborah Orr from The Independent, June 19, 2009


Sunday Telegraph review  An Education by Lynn Barber book review by Anne Chisholm from The Sunday Telegraph, July 5, 2009


"Lynn Barber to leave Observer",  Stephen Brook from The Guardian, September 17, 2009


Lynn Barber: My age of innocence - Times Online  Lynn Barber from The Sunday Times, October 11, 2009


Articles by lynn barber  from various UK publications


More by Lynn Barber  The Lynn Barber interview page from The Guardian


San Francisco Chronicle (Mick LaSalle) review [3/4]


Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan) review


Chicago Tribune (Michael Phillips) review


Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) review [4/4]


The New York Times (A.O. Scott) review


A Bud About to Burst Into Bloom  Sarah Lyall from The New York Times, October 1, 2009


Lynn Barber - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Scherson, Alicia                


PLAY                                                  A-                    93

Chile  Argentina  France  (105 mi)  2005
This film took a prize at the Tribeca Fest for Best New Filmmaker, also winning the Audience Choice Award at the Montreal Fest.  The first-time filmmaker actually wrote the script while living in Chicago attending the University of Illinois at the Chicago campus, imagining life far away in Santiago, Chile, her hometown.  According to the director, who also studied film in Cuba and whose favorite filmmaker was Antonioni, also liking Hal Hartley, the idea for the story began with what people throw away, thinking this represents a part of their life.  A young indigenous Mapuche woman has come to the city from the poor rural area in the south of Chile, Cristina (Viviana Herrera), providing in-home care for an aging Hungarian man who is too ill to speak, so she reads him articles from National Geographic, which turn out to be an eye into the ancient civilization from the region, a glimpse into her historical past.  Quite by accident, she finds a suitcase in the trash and becomes curious who it belongs to.  For no apparent reason except idle curiosity, she begins following a young man, Tristan (Andres Ulloa), a kind of sullen Jean-Pierre Leaud character, whose identification appears inside the suitcase, a man whose modern, ultra chic fashion conscious girl friend, the lovely Irene (Aline Küppenheim), has just left him, claiming he has no imagination.  What follows is cris-crossing story lines from Cristina and Tristan, both, strangely, victims of an odd and peculiar identity theft, each meandering aimlessly through the streets of Santiago, much of it humorous, all of it intriguing to the eye, as it so beautifully captures the flavor and personality of the streets of Santiago, as well as these oddly compelling people, though Cristina is far more captivating and complex.  The director acknowledged as much, claiming she wrote stronger women characters and weaker guys.  As for the title of the film, the director indicated the word "play" is part of a universal language on gadgets around the world, that when pressed, you know something is about to happen.      


The fresh and unique artistic conception for this film is captured in the way the story unfolds, using intimate close ups of parts of a head, just showing cheeks and lips, moving slowly to the eyes, or when looking at the elderly man, showing close ups of his hands and fingers, which enlarges and personalizes specific details that capture the filmmaker’s imagination, which then take on a greater interest to the viewer.  The editing is superb, always beautifully in synch with the original music written by Joseph Costa, establishing a well-controlled rhythm and pace, especially through extended wordless sequences, which greatly accentuates the power of the innovative and colorful imagery.  The style of storytelling is wonderfully off beat, never allowing the viewer to know where this film is heading.  Only near the end, once we’ve familiarized ourselves with the characters, does the director delve into the emotional depths of a still unexplored world between these two people, unfolding with an elegant grace that fully captures the poetry of the moment. 
Alicia Scherson:

(While living in Chicago, I gained) “new insight into the way we define ourselves as inhabitants of a specific place.  The more the world connects through the global economy and technology, the more this definition and this awareness of identity becomes more diffuse and complex.”


Schlesinger, John


Béatrice Schatzmann-von Aesch from Senses of Cinema:


In Search of Masculinity: Martin Ritt's Hud and John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy  Ann Barrow from Images



Great Britain  (98 mi)  1963  ‘Scope


Movie Round-Up  Mark Harris from Patrick Murtha’s Diary

Billy Liar is based on the novel by Keith Waterhouse (first turned into a play, then this film), and was directed by John Schlesinger; it stars Tom Courtenay (who had followed Albert Finney in the role on stage) and Julie Christie (briefly but memorably). Billy "Liar" is a disaffected dreamer of a young man who, trapped in his own solipsism, doesn't much consider his impact on the people around him (including his two mutually unknowing fiancees). Courtenay is very believable in the role, but doesn't, to my way of thinking, pull the audience into his fantasies; perhaps there was no intent to do that, but, watching the character from an exterior perspective, he's rather off-putting. That makes the film, ostensibly comic, actually rather sour and eventually quite sad; the ending (beautifully done) is an unexpected slap that would be unthinkable in an equivalent American film of that time. Billy Liar is, ultimately, a serious, substantial, must-see movie.

Time Out London (Dave Calhoun)


You can catch John Schlesinger’s quick-fire satire of post-war British values for one day (Tue August 14) as part of the ongoing ‘Summer of British Film’ series. Released in the wake of the early social realist films of Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, Schlesinger’s physical world is the same – northern and working-class – but his approach to social commentary and storytelling, as adapted from Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s book and play, is more playful and less concerned with realism than films like ‘Taste of Honey’ and ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’. Schlesinger’s Billy (Tom Courtenay) is a confused young man with too much imagination for considering kitchen sinks: nominally he’s an undertaker’s clerk, but his real job is to carve a parallel, fantasy world for himself, whether leading men to war in a state called Ambrosia or forging himself a career in showbiz. Billy’s endless lies feel less like deceptions and more like an expression of the conflicts within a young man who’s uneasy in a fast-changing world. Funny and unexpectedly poignant.


BFI Screen Online  Phil Wickham   Show full synopsis

Billy Liar (1963) is probably the most fun of the 'new wave' films - indeed the only one which is intended largely as a comedy. As is often the way with comedy, the provision of good jokes and laughter enables the audience to take on board difficult truths and complex ideas that might be more unpalatable in dramatic work.

Based on the novel by Keith Waterhouse, and on his and Willis Hall's subsequent play, Billy Liar is structured something like a classic TV sitcom. In 1963, Galton and Simpson's Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-74) was a huge hit, and there are interesting parallels. Like Harold Steptoe, Billy is a fantasist determined to transcend his everyday humdrum existence but unable to actually leave it in reality. At the end of the film, rather than face the chance of a new life and happiness with Liz, Billy prefers to wallow in the comfort of his fantasy life. He walks back to his front door and imagines the massed ranks of the Ambrosia army's band marching behind him. As with Steptoe and Son the structure is circular; we end where we began. There has been a challenge to Billy's mix of dreary reality and fantasy through Liz and his scriptwriting ambitions, but it has come to nothing.

Despite the topical jokes about Godfrey Winn and the 'twist', the film holds up today better than most. It is wonderfully performed, especially by Courtenay as Billy, with his mixture of deceit and good intentions, immaturity and intelligence. It is also genuinely funny. The stream of verbal wit and the humour of recognition are enlivened by the Ambrosia sequences, and Billy's more and more outrageous lies are hugely entertaining.

Schlesinger, Waterhouse and Hall had all worked on A Kind of Loving (d. John Schlesinger, 1962) and Billy Liar is a comic, subversive take on the environment of that film. The idea of failures wishing they were successful but lacking the wherewithal to change their lot is an important motif in English culture, from Dickens to Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981-). Later Schlesinger transposed it to America with great success in Midnight Cowboy (US, 1968).

The poignancy of Billy the loser is highlighted by the contrast with the beautiful, imaginative and unfettered Liz, played by Julie Christie at her most devastating. Unlike Liz, Billy, for all his dreams, will never get the train. The audience is forced to recognise that most of us are Billy rather than Liz.

Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson)

The theater goes dark and the screen lights up in a deliciously black-and-white Cinemascope shape. I think about how well this shade and shape go together and how seldom this has actually occurred in film history. Just about the time Cinemascope came into use, full color began to take over. If black-and-white was used at all, it was used in smaller scope, lower-budget films like Psycho and Dr. Strangelove.

So even if Billy Liar had been bad, the esthetic pleasure of watching it on the big screen would have been enough. But happily, Billy Liar remains a fine viewing experience, against all odds. The problem with making "hip" movies in the 1960's is that you were going for a quick buck, not a long shelf life. So it's extraordinary that Billy Liar bucked the trend.

Director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy and The Falcon and the Snowman) made his second movie Billy Liar as part of the beginning rumblings of the British New Wave, an attempt to get out from under stifling costume dramas and rigidly proper English stories. Schlesinger played to the new lost youth, the young people who didn't have to go off to war and didn't know what they wanted to do with their lives. And, like Rebel Without a Cause before it and The Graduate after it, it took off.

Ironically, Schlesinger has recently given up his youthful pluck and given in to making British television movies! But these films, like the delightful Cold Comfort Farm (1996), contain some of his best work.

Adapted by Keith Waterhouse from his own play and co-written by Willis Hall, the movie concerns young Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay), who works at a funeral home and daydreams Walter Mitty-style about being dictator of his own imaginary country, Ambrosia. Billy's second-biggest problem at the moment is that he was supposed to have mailed out 250 funeral home calendars as Christmas presents, but instead took the postage money and hid the evidence. His biggest problem is that he has become engaged to two girls at the same time, the monkey-faced Rita (Gwendolyn Watts) and the shrewish Barbara (Helen Fraser). Even worse, he's also in love with dreamy and free-wheeling Liz (Julie Christie, in one of her first big roles).

The movie has a ragtag feel to it, as if Schlesinger was shooting off the cuff with nothing really planned, which fits the searching mood of the movie. A few visual gags probably invented for the play work wonderfully: Billy and the calendars, a metaphor for lost time or wasting time, and Billy leaving Julie Christie on the train in order to buy two cartons of milk (representing mother?) then splatting them all over the train tracks.

Despite the indecisiveness of its character and its rather bleak outlook, Billy Liar remains light on its feel without becoming either depressing or self-important. All the interior scenes feel oppressive, such as Billy's cramped house and his ominous funeral home job with its dark ceilings and basement toilet. And the exterior scenes are marked with the look of a town being torn down. Billy and Rita even spend an afternoon date at a graveyard! Yet Billy keeps a spring in his step the whole way. Even if this world is drab, there's always Ambrosia. And, for me, there's that lovely black-and-white Cinemascope frame.

Billy Liar plays through Sunday at the Castro as part of their British New Wave series. Other films in the series include: Silvio Narizzano's Georgy Girl (1966), Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life (1963), and four by Tony Richardson: Look Back in Anger (1959), The Entertainer (1960), and A Taste of Honey (1961), and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962).

Images Movie Journal  David Ng


DVD Times  Alexander Larman


The Village Voice [Jessica Winter]


Epinions [Stephen O. Murray]


Q Network Film Desk (James Kendrick)


DVD Savant Review  Glenn Erickson (Jeff Ulmer)


DVD Verdict (Barrie Maxwell)

Movie Magazine International [Monica Sullivan] (Chris Dashiell)



Philadelphia City Paper [Sam Adams]

The New York Times (Bosley Crowther)   December 17, 1963


New York Times (registration req'd)  'Billy Liar': A Spinner of Fantasies Beset by Deep Indecision, by A.O. Scott, November 17, 2000 [Gary W. Tooze]


Schlöndorff, Volker



Germany  (106 mi)  1973  co-director:  Margarethe von Trotta


Lost Honor Of Katharina Blum   Who’s the Terrorist in West Germeny? by Daniel Cetinich from Jump Cut



Germany  1978


Antigone Agonistes The Red Army Fraction on Screen  Germany in Autumn and Death Game, by Thomas Elsaesser from Rouge


CIRCLE OF DECEIT                                  B-                    80

Germany  France  (108 mi)  1981


A war correspondence story, featuring Bruno Ganz as a troubled, emotionless writer who travels to war-torn Beirut with Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski acting as his even more cynical photographer.  He claims he refuses to live his life as a lie, believing that one is as good as dead when one can no longer recognize this “lie.”  In Beirut, he witnesses the Christians murdering the Palestinians, who retaliate in kind, both sides seeking to exploit the horrors of the other side through the Western news media.  Ganz weaves in and out of this world like an alien from another planet, without any real grasp of the situation, but is lead around like a carrot on a stick, one “circle of deceit” leading to another, actually encountering Hanna Schygulla in the middle of it all, whose mansion in the middle of the war zone is somehow mysteriously left bullet free, while fires blaze all around it.  Schlöndorff has some terrific material, some of which was shot during actual war scenes, but he uses a heavy hand and over-indulges, which for most of the film leaves one feeling we are witnessing a Spielberg product, as Ganz gains a sense of his humanity only as the bodies pile up in the streets, and the grisliest photographs are auctioned off to the highest bidder.  But there are moments of surreal sequences, a man racing alone down a street surrounded by the sounds of war, like a dream sequence where he is also trying to find himself, or images of refugee children, burning bodies left on the street, or the war on the streets going from house to house, followed by immediate shootings of all the men and boys.  While the subject was fascinating, it was accompanied by a complete lack of any emotional connection, which just left one feeling flat at the end. 


Circle of Deceit   Ed Gonzalez from Slant magazine


Volker Schlöndorff's humanist Circle of Deceit charts the many moral quandaries encountered by journalist Georg Laschen (Bruno Ganz) when he's sent to Beirut to catalog the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war. Viciously absorbed into the unpredictable chaos that erupts around him, Georg comes to question his subjective approach to the war while trying to put an end to his devastated relationship with his wife back home and negotiate the parasitic journalists who soullessly trade in images of the dead. Not unlike Fassbinder's Pioneers in Ingolstadt (which also starred the iconic Hanna Schygulla), Circle of Deceit is troublesomely hung up on a metaphoric love-is-war dialectic that works for Schlöndorff more than it did for Fassbinder if only because the approach here is considerably more folkloric. Maurice Jarr's sinister, almost childlike score is a work of subversive genius that exaggerates the rampant cynicism and hypocrisy the film simultaneously embodies and parades throughout its 108 minutes. "A very good photographer. He only sees what he sees. He leaves the doubting to me," says Georg of his photographer friend, a man so unmoved by even the most gruesome deaths that he will only record it if it coddles his predetermined notions of aesthetic truth. However glib Georg's marital problems are in comparison to the horrors he experiences on the streets of war-torn Beirut, Schlöndorff is valiantly concerned with bringing some semblance of logic to wars with unexplained beginnings and uncertain endings. A Hollywood film would have freed Georg by film's end; here, the man returns to his wife more confused than ever. The film's rain-drenched finale ravishingly evokes the horror of being trapped in a situation with no apparent way out.


Schmid, Hans-Christian


DISTANT LIGHTS                           B                     87

Germany  (104 mi)  2003


This film is a mix of multiple story lines all told in a common cinematic stream of consciousness, constantly shifting back and forth, but combining the same sense of urgency in each of the streams, once more featuring the common theme of this festival, the enormous problem of illegal immigrants, in this case from the Ukraine to Poland to Germany.  The film examines various manifestations of this problem, those now attempting to cross into Europe, those that crossed years ago and are still having trouble financially, and those successful individuals who are simply from another nationality, so are not privy to the way business works across these borders, as they are treated just as dismissively as the illegal population.  I was fascinated by a German immigration Polish-Russian-speaking translator, interestingly played by Maria Simon, who, at great risk to herself, tries to send signals to the illegal population during the middle of their immigration interviews.  That part of the story was absolutely riveting for me.  The problem, when you use this technique, is that one set of stories is stronger or has a greater impact than the others, ultimately minimizing the overall effect of the film.  And that was the case for me.  This film was a wonderful attempt to say more than the standard narrative, but unfortunately, it also utilizes that handheld camera technique which never stops moving, so while it may provide frenzied energy, it also frustrates the viewing experience as you can never really see what’s on screen.



Germany  2006


Michael Sicinski from the Academic hack:


[TABULA RASA SPOILERS] When I was first developing a serious interest in film, I took an undergraduate course on the New German Cinema. Needless to say, it was revelatory to discover Wenders, Herzog, Kluge, and especially Fassbinder while still in my early 20s, and in certain ways that course (along with my art historical training) shaped how I would engage with cinema, even to the present day. As a result, I tend to feel more of an obligation to German film than I do to other national cinemas, even French film, because it was so formative for me. Against my better judgment, I keep looking for signs of life in that mostly sad, moribund field, and it seems that for every Summer '04, I discover three or four Edukators -- bland but perfectly passable entertainments with none of the rigor or ontological fearlessness that first attracted me to German film. Case in point: Requiem is certainly watchable, but Schmid has nothing much to say as a director. His major move here seems to be to cast the life of young Michaela (stage actress Sandra Hüller, in her film debut) as confining but drab, so much so that when she THE CHOICE IS YOURS: (has her psychotic breakdown / is possessed by Satan), the wobbly camerawork and actorly pyrotechnics make the naturalism jump like the application of cardiac paddles. Trouble is, there's not much more to it. The Dogme-esque depiction of a young woman who believes she's enduring a test by God made me think that Schmid might intend for Requiem to function as some sort of counterpoint to Breaking the Waves, but as it wore on, this idea dissipated. While Schmid certainly leaves ample room for rationalist assessments of Michaela's affliction, he never commits one way or the other. Perhaps this is meant to represent bold arthouse inconclusiveness, but as Schmid handles it it just feels like a big copout. There's no there there, and deeper readings, it seems to me, are all destined to fail. As for Hüller's widely-praised performance, I will gladly agree that she does the impossible, and makes it look rather easy at that. The material could be so much pulpier and more outlandish than she allows it to be. (This story, after all, also inspired The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which I didn't see.) Simply playing Michaela in the measured, naturalist register throughout does in fact represent a significant accomplishment. But more than this, I think Hüller's primary gift is her physical presence. Nondescript, plain and Germanic with a doughy nose, she's the sort of woman who fades into the woodwork, who is genuinely hard to see. As a result, we feel Michaela's struggle to become an adult subject, and in turn, find it fully logical that her THE CHOICE IS YOURS: (psychosis / tenure as Satan's unwilling plaything) would take shape as a literal seizure, a displacement of her very being.


STORM                                                          B+                   90

Germany  Denmark  Netherlands  (107 mi)  2009  ‘Scope


A tense, psychological courtroom drama about the ramifications of bringing a controversial war crimes case to the Hague, exploring life from the prosecutor’s side (Kerry Fox), to the accused Serbian General Goran Duric (Drazen Kuehn), to the lead Bosnian witness Anamaria Marinca, and plenty of behind the scenes maneuvering as well.  If anyone thinks the Hague is all about living up to their creed of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” they should take a look at this film co-written by the director and Bernd Lange that suggests much of what takes place is a sham, a public relations campaign to give the appearance of justice, while really making behind the scenes negotiations which avoid major complications that might embarrass a particular government, so they sweep major atrocities under the rug and streamline the charges in order for the courts to run smoothly.  The film opens when the more qualified female prosecutor Kerry Fox is overlooked for the position of lead prosecutor, which oversees the entire court operations, for a more politically inclined man who prefers to settle cases rather than see justice done, as for him, the job is to avoid negative publicity shed on the United Nations and instead run the court system as a matter of convenience between nations, similar to making sure that the trains run on time. 


Fox is assigned a case to prosecute a Serbian General who is connected to ethnic cleansing, where a witness claims he saw him rounding up all the women in certain towns and placing them on school buses, many of whom disappeared afterwards.  The key evidence is establishing that the General was in charge of the operation, but the case falls apart when it becomes apparent that the witness is lying, resulting in the witness tragically hanging himself in his hotel room.  This horror leaves the prosecutor one week to continue her case.  After several visits into Bosnia and hostile Serbian territory, Fox finally manages to obtain another reluctant witness (Anamaria Marinca), the sister of the previous witness, who was actually placed on the school bus and transported to a Serbian hotel where the Serbian army raped and killed most of the girls.  When Fox brings this to light, the defense objects, claiming this is “new” evidence, which would have to be investigated and amount to having to start the defense procedures all over again, extending the trial by several more months.  So the judge decides to limit the witness testimony to the bus itself, nothing more, allowing the General to plead guilty to lesser charges where he could be released on time served.  What’s interesting is how this plays out in the various countries, where the Bosnians are horrified that the General returns home a war hero, never more popular, released because of supposed Bosnian lies and slander. 


Though it’s a German director with an international cast, this film is spoken nearly entirely in English with only a few brief subtitled sequences.  The effectiveness of the film is in its sleek style, similar to the American 1970’s paranoid political thrillers where underworld thugs are constantly threatening potential witnesses and intimidating United Nations investigators, making them fear for their lives.  Schmid does an excellent job maintaining a tense atmosphere, where the witness’s lives, as well as their families, are continually at risk.  The disgraceful political undermining within their own court operations belittles the heroic sacrifices made by witnesses, some whose entire families may have been wiped out at the hands of one of these suspected war criminals.  Marinca’s reticence to come forward is followed by a firm conviction that she should have done this long ago, providing more specifics than the court can handle, where she is especially effective at revealing the absurdity of risking one’s life for what amounts to setting a man free.  Moving quickly between the nations of Bosnia, Serbia, Germany, and the Netherlands, each with their own unique cultural characteristics, including their views towards UN investigators, is beautifully captured by the roving camera of Bogumil Godfrejów.  The film raises as many questions as it answers, but it certainly suggests a reticence by the courts themselves to thoroughly investigate war crimes due to the difficulty in investigating them, which includes having to endure hateful negative press while investigating inside hostile territories, suggesting major cases are routinely swept under the rug out of political expediency where they would rather settle for lesser offenses where they can get a conviction. 


Special Note – supporting actress Anamaria Marinca, cinematography Bogumil Godfrejów


Variety (Derek Elley) review

A potentially gripping legal thriller about what happens when Western Europe attempts to solve Central European problems ends up as dull entertainment in "Storm." Europudding production, shot largely in English, wastes some fine acting talent -- Kerry Fox, Stephen Dillane and, especially, Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days") -- on a script whose dialogue is by turns awkward, expository and simply unnatural, and which tries to be provocative but ends up being either back-breakingly worthy or plain silly. Expect some serious reviews in Euro territories followed by distinctly un-stormy business.

It's 2005, and former Yugoslav National Army commander Goran Duric (Drazen Kuehn) is arrested while vacationing in the Canary Islands. Three years later, his trial for war crimes committed 15 years earlier in the Bosnian town of Kasmaj is due at the U.N. Intl. Criminal Tribunal in the Hague. Prosecutor Hannah Maynard (Fox) is told by her boss, Keith Haywood (Stephen Dillane), that it's a piece of cake; all she has to do is prove Duric was in charge of the ethnic cleansing.

However, when Duric's canny lawyer (Tarik Filipovic) undermines the credibility of Hannah's key witness, Alen Hajdarevic (Kresimir Mikic), Keith tells Hannah she has to take a new approach to the case. She has one week to do so, as the tribunal is already getting itchy to close the book on Bosnia.

Hannah tracks down Alen's sister, Mira (Marinca), who lives in Berlin with her husband (Steven Scharf) and young son, and pressures her to go on the witness stand. Meanwhile, she also starts to uncover hints of further dark deeds by Duric in a spa hotel in Vilina Kosa, near Kasmaj.

Despite threats and harassment by Serbian nationalists, Mira finally agrees to help Hannah, partly to exorcise her own memories. But behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing by EU pols undercuts Mira's usefulness and threatens to make her collateral damage on a broader geopolitical level.

Not helped by the cloth-eared dialogue, which sounds directly translated from German, the rather tired-looking Fox doesn't breathe much life into her conflicted role as U.N. careerist and social conscience. Most of the rest of the cast, including Dillane as her hardass boss and Sweden's Rolf Lassgard as her EU apparatchik lover, are simply moved around the board at the scripters' convenience.

Only Marinca, so good as the pragmatic best friend in "4 Months," manages to rise above the studied dialogue. She carves a sympathetic character whose life is of little consequence to those in the comfy Netherlands, far from the tangled, emotional arena of former Yugoslavia.

Schmid, who created a real sense of claustrophobia in exorcism drama "Requiem," doesn't show the same smarts here as the movie flips back and forth between the Netherlands, Germany and Central Europe with zero accumulating tension. Widescreen, handheld lensing by Polish lenser Bogumil Godfrejow, who also shot "Requiem," is distractingly antsy, for no apparent reason other than to try to engender a sense of immediacy.

Camera (color, widescreen), Bogumil Godfrejow; editor, Hansjoerg Weissbrich; music, the Notwist; art director, Christian M. Goldbeck; costume designer, Steffi Bruhn; sound (Dolby Digital), Patrick Veigel; sound designer, Hans Moller; assistant director, Scott Kirby. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 7, 2009. Running time: 102 MIN.

Schmitz, Oliver



South Africa  Germany  (105 mi)  2010

Life Above All  Alan Hunter at Cannes from Screendaily

A commanding performance from screen newcomer Khomotso Manyaka lights up Life, Above All, a moving adaptation of Allan Stratton’s bestselling 2004 novel Chanda’s Secrets. A classic coming of age story is given added dramatic heft by placing it in a South Africa where so many children are obliged to assume adult responsibilities as the AIDS pandemic leaves hundreds of thousands of orphans in its wake.

Ultimately uplifting in tone, Life, Above All has the potential to connect with a mainstream audience attracted to sensitive literary adaptations and intrigued by the South African setting. The 2008 screen version of J. M Coetzee’s Disgrace might provide a template of commercial potential.

In Chanda’s Secrets the lead character is aged sixteen. In the film Chanda (Manyaka) is twelve and more of an innocent. She lives in the small township of Elandsdoorn near Johannesburg. It appears to be a supportive, tight-knit community where people look out for each other. Following the death of her newly born baby sister, Chanda is to discover that Elandsdoorn is really a place where maintaining the appearance of happy normality is more important than acknowledging the truth of a disease that is rife in the country.

There is gossip and speculation but nobody openly admits that Chanda’s stepfather Jonah (Aubrey Poolo) is a drunken wastrel or that her mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) is gravely ill. Chanda has to figure everything out for herself.

Spotted by talent scouts during a choir performance at her school, Khomotso Manyaka proves to be a screen natural as Chanda. Her eyes blaze with intelligence and compassion, investing the character with a fearless curiosity. Her hunger for the truth makes Chanda a dangerous force in a community comforted by lies and evasions.

She is the one who must challenge authority and take the cares of the world upon her shoulders. Manyaka’s completely natural performance makes Chanda an earth mother in the making and she receives excellent support from Keaobaka Makanyane as Esther, a loyal friend with a more pragmatic view of the world. The acting is notable throughout with Lerato Mvelase lending a gentle dignity to the longsuffering Lillian and Harriet Manamela adding some fire to the character of Mrs Tafa, a friendly neighbour torn between supporting Chanda’s family or remaining a silent figure of reproach within the local community.

Polished production values and handsome location photography combine to make Life, Above All an attractive proposition. It largely avoids the temptation to sentimentalise or turn preachy letting the obvious lessons from this tale of pride and prejudice speak for themselves.

Mary Corliss  at Cannes from Time magazine, May 22, 2010


Falila Gbadamassi  from, May 20, 2010


Guy Lodge  at Cannes from In Contention, May 21, 2010


Matt Bochenski  at Cannes from Little White Lies, May 20, 2010


Cannes 2010: Oliver Schmitz's "Life, Above All"  David Hudson at Cannes from The Auteurs, May 23, 2010

Cannes #6: Of emotion and its absence  Roger Ebert at Cannes, May 18, 2010

Schmoeller, David



USA  (104 mi)  1982


The Horror Review [Egregious Gurnow]

After exhausting himself with this feature-length debut, Tourist Trap, director David Schmoeller spent the remainder of his career writing every--yes every--installment in the Puppet Master series.  Trust me, regardless of your opinion of the murderous little puppets, this is a good thing because it kept Schmoeller from creeping behind a camera and possibility giving the world another round of cinematic tripe equal to or (get ready for a serious hypothetical) worse than The Seduction.

Now, aside from the trite, yuppie mentality of the film shot during an age when guys had helmets of blow-dried hair split down the center, The Seduction stands as a blatant excuse to put Fairchild, a.k.a. cinematic eye candy, on screen in all her narcissistic glory (at one point she leaves a sauna with her friend, the latter of which is drenched in sweat, her hair dripping wet, as Fairchild stands beside her, dry as a bone, nary a hair out of place) for almost two hours.  So, to make this as painless as possible, here’s the tallies:

    Number of “Boo” moments:  3.

   Number of anorexic lead actresses with manicured fingernails which make their scrawny, elongated digits resemble alien appendages that much more:  1.

   Number of scenes with Fairchild nude:  3.

   Number of scenes with Fairchild in a state of undress:  2.

   Number of extras caught looking directly into the camera:  1.

   Number of moralistic diatribes posing as social commentary voiced through a character mouthpiece:  1.

   Number of times Fairchild pumps a shotgun even though there is nothing left in the chamber:  3.

   Number of minutes closer to death I am as a consequence of having watched The Seduction:  104.

   Number of times I will watch The Seduction again:  Only if you want me to tell you where my grandmother hides her money.

   Trivia tidbit:  Frank Capra, Jr., the son of the renowned director, showing none of the aesthetic sensibilities of his father, produced the film [Chuck O'Leary]


Guilty pleasures don't get much guiltier than 1982's The Seduction, a glossy, but ridiculously contrived potboiler made before the term "stalking" became well known.  But even the lack of laws on the books regarding stalking when the film was made doesn't totally excuse its absence of logic.  Nevertheless, there's plenty of unintentional camp value to be enjoyed in this one.


Then a hot sex symbol from her role on the network television series Flamingo Road, The Seduction marked the first (and last) big-screen starring vehicle for blonde bombshell Morgan Fairchild.  She plays a Los Angeles news anchorwoman named Jamie Douglas, who begins getting stalked by a secret admirer named Derek (Andrew Stevens), a photographer who somehow has enough money to live above her in a house on the same hill in an affluent section of Southern California.


Derek is a lovestruck Peeping Tom who regularly spies on Jamie and snaps pictures of her by pointing his camera with a telescopic lens down the hill while she's doing things like swimming nude in her pool.  He then becomes bolder and begins to violate her personal space by showing up at her workplace and home, which alarms Jamie and her reporter boyfriend (Michael Sarrazin).  The delusional Derek just won't take "no" for an answer.


But when the boyfriend goes to an L.A. police detective he knows, the detective simply tells him that Derek hasn't broken any laws and that he's powerless to do anything.  This cop, played by the late Vince Edwards, may very well be the most frustratingly slow to act law-enforcement officer in movie history.  We're expected to believe, from how the cynical cop rationalizes it, that he's powerless to lift a finger to help a local TV celebrity, who's dating a newspaper reporter acquaintance to boot.  I'd hate to be an ordinary crime victim in this guy's precinct.


The Seduction works on the level of an exploitation movie, and the performances by Fairchild and Stevens are actually pretty good.  It's just the script conveniently forgets certain important details about the world its characters inhabit.  For instance, how does Derek afford to live in such an upscale neighborhood?  Is the Edwards character the only cop in L.A. with the power to do anything?  Why isn't there any security at the station where Jamie works?  And how can a stranger such as Derek walk around the newsroom without ever being noticed?


Because this is a movie that's sparse on details, we see that Derek works at a photography studio, which he either manages or owns.  But whatever his duties may be there, he lets his female assistant handle all his work while he's off stalking Jamie all hours of the day.  The female assistant is also a blonde who's not as beautiful as Jamie but certainly isn't unattractive.  She has an obvious crush on Derek, but he continually rejects her because he's convinced he has a relationship with Jamie.


The Seduction is an attractively photographed, brightly colored film that looks more expensive than the $2 million it cost to make.  That makes some of the sloppy direction and editing in the final reel all the more noticeable.  Two cuts, one involving the continuity of a woman walking down a hill and the other involving a climactic gunshot, are especially awkward.


But in spite of all these shortcomings, The Seduction still somehow manages to entertain.  Part of its appeal, I think, has to do with the psychological battle of wills that develops between two impossibly attractive people, and how the woman eventually turns the tables in a film from an era where we weren't used to seeing women fight back on screen -- this was long before the days of acrobatic female action heroes as tough as any man.


I also think another reason the film succeeds in spite of itself is because Fairchild has a strong screen presence and projects an unexpected amount of intelligence (as she does in real life) in a movie that's obviously more interested in her great body.  And Stevens (now mainly a film producer) is well cast and convincing as a psycho (not unlike a Ted Bundy) whose good looks and neat appearance never makes anyone suspect (at first glance) that he's anything less than perfectly normal.  Stevens (the son of Stella Stevens) never got enough credit for his intense performances in films like this and The Fury.


Anchor Bay's new DVD edition of The Seduction is another refreshingly thorough treatment of a fun B movie.  The picture is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and the sound is Dolby Digital Mono.  But for a DVD that is not labeled a special edition, there are more extras included here than on many releases which are called "special editions" by bigger companies.  There's a feature-length audio commentary with producers Irwin Yablans (Halloween) and Bruce Cohn Curtis (Dreamscape), who collaborated the previous year on the horror film Hell Night with Linda Blair, and writer-director David Schmoeller.  Also included is the theatrical trailer, and three featurettes, one of which includes a recently recorded group interview with Yablans, Curtis, Schmoeller and supporting players Colleen Camp, who plays Jamie's mouthy friend and neighbor in the film, and Kevin Brophy, who plays a jocular co-worker of Jamie's.  However, the principal actors (Fairchild, Stevens or Sarrazin) are noticeably absent from the retrospective interviews, possibly not wanting to reminisce about a film that was heavily bashed by most critics upon its initial release.  In many ways, however, The Seduction represents what's known as "a good bad movie."


On a historical note, The Seduction was the last film distributed by Avco Embassy Pictures before Norman Lear bought the company and it became Embassy Pictures for its remaining years.  Bette Davis was also reportedly a fan of Morgan Fairchild's performance and the film itself, possibly because Fairchild played an ultimately strong female protagonist in a movie with that old-school gloss.


The Seduction  The pornographic impulse in slasher films, by Patricia Erens from Jump Cut


DVDTalk [Paul Mavis]


MoonStar Film Reviews [Youssef Kdiry]


PopMatters (Emma Simmonds)


Fangoria   Chris Haberman


The SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review  Richard Scheib


DVD Verdict [David Johnson]


Movie House Commentary  Tuna and Johnny Web


The New York Times (Vincent Canby)


Schnabel, Julian


BEFORE NIGHT FALLS                            A                     96

USA  2001                                                                   


Another emotional powerhouse, featuring in my view, the best acting performance of the year by Javier Bardem, whose bold commitment to the raw authenticity of this story was both powerful and dramatic, the balloon sequence and the late cab ride along the New York waterfront are among the most elegantly beautiful scenes one could ever experience.


I found it one of the more compelling films I've seen this year.  The visual style is dazzling, intermixed with recitations of Reinaldo Arenas's own melancholy poetry, yes, perhaps the narration goes on and on, but this is a writer we're talking about, one who started by carving words onto trees, a writer whose grandfather, when the teacher informs him his grandson has a talent for poetry, grabs him and manically chops down the tree with the word "Christmas."  In some scenes, the visual mix, Arena's own words, and the always affirming Cuban music, are simply brilliant and indescribable.  The scene that comes to mind is in New York City, at a time when he can barely walk, the hospital releases him from a wheelchair into a taxicab, fleeting images of the New York streets and waterfront are mixed with Arena's own memories of the Cuban waterfront, the sorrow and pain in his words during this cab-ride express something altogether outside human understanding; there is an absolutely brilliant performance by the Spanish actor, Javier Bardem, that, by itself, is worth the price of admission, it's simply unbelievable.  You can't walk out of the theater without being haunted by the intensity of the images on screen.


For my money, the power of Bardem's performance carries the film, the music and imagery of expression I found haunting and provocative throughout.  I have to admit I knew nothing, going in, about this man, and I have now read countless reviews by those who DID know him, who were disappointed by what was left OUT, or by what some perceived to be a passivity in the film character of Arena, or by a somewhat standard or conventional means to make Arena a victim against the brutal, totalitarian Castro regime, such as Steve Erickson's film review

and there are other gay writers in Cuba that the film fails to mention, that were not subject to this same treatment.


This is not a film about someone else’s view of Cuba, for that, I would recommend the hilarious DEATH OF A BUREAUCRAT, or about this particular Cuban political regime, but instead it draws upon the unique complexity of this one homosexual writer who seems to flaunt his rebellion in the face of his oppressors, using his own sexuality and his words as his sword, his take on the Cuban revolution is appropriate to ANY revolution - "the revolution is not for everyone,"  he says, and is embittered and in rage about being left out.  Well the American revolution didn't exactly include slaves or Native Indians or even women, rage is part of every revolutionary sentiment, where there are the haves and have nots, and the have nots are usually pretty pissed about it.  Well that's precisely what I liked about this film.  I did not see him as a heroic victim crushed under the totalitarian regime, this man chose his weaponry, he was proud and stubborn, when asked why did he write, he answers - for revenge.  This film worked for me in ways QUILLS could only dream of, the unique way it balances the external and internal rage against the system, whether fact or fiction, this is art as liberation, interspersing newsreel footage, changing different textures of film, using voiceover narration over such personalized, human experiences seen on screen, using Bardem to recite Arena's own words, creating multi-layered collages that are underscored by the physically sensuous Cuban music, adding the husband and wife team of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson to further underscore the richness of atmosphere, which continues even throughout the rolling credits, leaving us in the end with singers in a room making music, such a simple, but life-affirming gesture...


I found this from start to finish to be a brilliant film.




At its best, Julian Schnabel's second film is a memoir of easy and raffish good times—the endless summer days at the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. Schnabel adapted an autobiographical memoir by the poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem), a homosexual who was initially a celebrant of the revolution, then a victim of it, and was finally allowed to leave Cuba with the rapists and thieves discarded by Castro in 1980. Arenas settled in New York, wrote a great deal, and, suffering from AIDS, committed suicide here in 1990. Schnabel doesn't tell this story coherently: characters appear or disappear without explanation, and we don't always know where we are. The method is closer to collage than to Hollywood script construction, but Schnabel works sensually, and that makes up for a lot. Bardem, who has the face of a shy, smiling bull—a prominent nose, handsome eyes—loosens up his shoulders and elbows and gives a performance of great charm. His Arenas wants to live only for writing and pleasure but has to deal, against his will, with the brutalities of politics. 

David Denby


Some of my favorite comments about Arenas were written by Chicago Tribune Staff writer Achy Obejas published 02-07-01:


"The spring of his last year alive, the writer Reinaldo Arenas cockily told the El Nuevo Herald, The Miami Herald's Spanish-language sister paper:  'My death will make my works all the more popular because, after death, one's defects are forgiven.'  He couldn't have been more prophetic...


Reinaldo suffered plenty in Cuba, but that persecution made him something of an international star.  He appeared on plenty of prisoner of conscience lists and he was praised for his courage in the face of Castro's tactics by the Cuban exile community.  The US gay and lesbian press, though not much concerned with Cuba or literary matters, hailed him as something of a hero.  So imagine his surprise when he arrived in the US during the Mariel boatlift and discovered that his celebrity was so fragile.  Once here, free and unfettered, the Cuban exile community had little use for him.  As hard as it may be to believe now, back in 1980 there wasn't much of a Cuban cultural presence in Miami - indeed, it would be the Mariel refugees who would later establish theaters, art galleries, and magazines and help spark both the rebirth of South Beach and the cultural renaissance in South Florida...


The US gay and lesbian press celebrates BEFORE NIGHT FALLS and drools over Bardems Reinaldo, just a year after a group of high-profile gay intellectuals drew up a list of the 100 top gay novels and managed to ignore every one of Reinaldo's.  In Cuba - the only place Reinaldo really cared about - his books still aren't available but, even in the most official circles, his work is now an integral part of the canonical discourse.  Yes, indeed, Reinaldo, all is forgiven...


In the mid-80's, I knew Reinaldo, sought him out because I thought we shared a few things:  We were both Cuban, both queer, both writers.  I thought he and I might have the same kinds of conflicts.  My exchanges with him - mostly long, difficult late-night talks in New York - revealed something else, and in a 1993 review for The Nation of "Before Night Falls," I wrote:  'What I didn't realize was that our damage was so different:  His was based on too close an acquaintance with the Cuban revolution, mine by rupture with it.  His need to write was, as he put it, 'a scream,' a defiance against all who might suppress him - it was his way of staying alive... What I found in Reinaldo was a man driven by demons and huge reserves of resentment .  His main obsessions were Fidel Castro and a loathing for Miami, the Cuban exile capital, particularly its writers and intellectuals...


Amazingly, especially since Schnabel's BEFORE NIGHT FALLS had as a co-writer Lazaro Gomez Carriles, Reinaldo's companion in his later years, the film managed to miss his two fixations.  And by eliminating them, it also erases the acerbic, acid-tongued Reinaldo of real life, who could on occasion be very cruel, even to the people he most loved...

Instead, the movie portrays a Reinaldo that the real life Reinaldo - knowing all too well its irony - would have loved:  played by Spaniard actor Javier Bardem, this Reinaldo is not just boyishly attractive, but cuddly.  This Reinaldo is charming and tender, a sensitive and willing acolyte to mentors such as writers Jose Lezama Lima and Virgilio Pinera, sometimes almost an innocent.  Yet I confess that as I watched the film, I was moved by Bardem's recreation of my friend, even in his small gestures - the way he used his hands is particularly true."


THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY                 B                     88

France  USA  (112 mi)  2007


Director Julian Schnabel is one of those characters whose reputation for having one of the world’s largest egos precedes him in any room, usually seen conducting press conferences Hugh Hefner-style wearing his silk pajamas poolside at the most expensive hotels on the Riviera, so it’s perfectly understandable that his career has been lauded or hated, depending on your point of view, as filmmaking is only a part-time career, balancing his checkbook from selling his oversized paintings.  Despite developing such an obnoxious side to his personality, he’s also managed to make a few good films, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS (2001) being among the best films of the year, supported by a powerful lead performance, exquisite musical choices, and a painterly eye that can be debated about its effectiveness.  Winner of the best director at Cannes this year, he had more to overcome than most, as his lead actor was fixed to a wheelchair paralyzed from head to toe and unable to speak, so the challenge of sustaining an interest in this film was formidable.  Other works in a similar vein might be Keith Gordon’s THE SINGING DETECTIVE (2003), where Robert Downey Jr. daydreams most of the film by projecting himself into extravagant musicals while he was confined bedside due to a rare and painfully crippling skin and joint disease, or the artsy fartsy Oscar winning performance of prisoner William Hurt in KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN (1985), which also spends a great deal of time in fantasy sequences.  But pretty much everyone has greater physical dexterity than the strict limitations imposed in this film. 


Based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), editor-in-chief of the French fashion magazine Elle, a mid 40’s jet-setting playboy who has the world at his feet until he suffers a debilitating stroke, leaving his internal cognitive skills intact, but no way to express them except by blinking yes or no with his one working eye.  Opening out of focus as the film projects his point of view coming out of a 3-week coma, an extended sequence that challenges the patience of the audience, Schnabel inventively utilizes his internal voice, much like a thought balloon in a comic strip, which provides much of the wit and humor throughout the film.  Amalric is amazingly clever, but doesn’t hide his disappointments or true feelings, including frequent lyrical literary passages that provide a poetic base for the director to fill in with imaginative free-flowing images, from snapshots on the wall to memories, as he re-imagines, or perhaps embellishes, certain experiences in his life.  Bauby receives the best of care, including two rehab nurses, one that tries to work with his tongue to regain speech and the other, Canadian actress Marie-Josée Croze, who allows him to painstakingly communicate with the blink of an eye letter by letter, forming words, sentences, and eventually with the help of a full-time stenographer, a book about his experience, but only through huge doses of constant repetition.  


The performances of the actors are astonishing, also including a memorable appearance by venerable actor Max von Sydow who can still cut it, or Emmanuelle Seigner (wife of Roman Polanski) as the unmarried mother of his three kids, or Amalric himself who has to express the soul of his character just by the way he reads his lines.  Despite the director’s attempts to utilize artistic techniques to change the pace of the film, such as expansive scenes sitting in a wheelchair on the beach when his kids pay him a father’s day visit, or mixing in imaginary daydreams where he can be whoever he wants, the tearful sympathy factor remains fixed with the unusual condition of this patient.  There is an unintended consequence to this film, which is the obscene display of wealth in receiving the best health care that money can buy, where the degree of specialized treatment is reminiscent of service from a 5 star hotel.  Bauby had a huge network of doctors, hospital staff, professional associates, friends and family, all of whom played a part in his mental outlook, which slowly improved from his initial communicated message that he wanted death.  But it’s impossible not to think of other patients in similar conditions who are treated like slabs of meat, poked and prodded, and lifted onto animal scales for weigh-ins, usually accompanied by bed sores from poor quality of care.  It was impossible not to think of real people as Bauby continued to be pampered in the most patient, reassuring manner imaginable.  My only wish is that everyone should have that high level of care, as it obviously helps any patient’s morale.       


Reel Film Reviews [David Nusair]


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tells the fascinating true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric), a 43-year-old magazine editor who suddenly finds himself a prisoner in his own body following a debilitating stroke. Assisted by a team of tireless professionals (including a speech therapist superbly played by Marie-Josée Croze), Bauby slowly but surely adjusts to his new situation and even begins working on a book detailing his experiences. Filmmaker Julian Schnabel - along with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski - has infused The Diving Bell and the Butterfly with a striking, almost avant-garde sensibility that's nothing short of astounding, and the movie - which is endlessly intriguing simply in terms of its visuals - effectively places the viewer in Bauby's shoes by employing a series of point-of-view shots that never become as oppressive as one might've feared. Such stylistic choices - coupled with Amalric's thoroughly moving performance - ensure that Bauby remains an incredibly sympathetic figure throughout The Diving Bell and the Butterfly's running time, with the end result a film that's as emotionally devastating as it is engrossing.


Planet Sick-Boy


On the surface, this Cannes winner (Best Director and a Technical Grand Prize for cinematography) seemed like it would be another one of those films about a guy who suffers complete paralysis and sits there like a meatloaf trying to convince everyone that he has the right to die on his own terms.  One of those films like the insufferable The Sea Inside.  But director Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls) and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (Oscar winner for The Pianist) quickly dismiss notions of meatloaferly by shooting the first 15 minutes of Butterfly from the point-of-view of recent stroke-sufferer and new quadriplegic, Jean-Dominque Bauby (Mathieu Amalric).  The confusion and haziness of waking from a coma?  You live it.  Realizing, frustratingly, you're not able to speak ?  You feel it.  Watching as the doctor sews up your useless right eye?  You squirm through it.

The bulk of the first 45 minutes continues in this POV fashion, with Bauby -- the editor of the French version of Elle -- learning to communicate by blinking his remaining eye as his therapist (Marie-Josée Croze) reads the alphabet to him.  Blink once when you hear the letter you need.  It's absolutely torturous, but makes the film's payoff that much more emotional.  Plus, I've always said I'd be happy to watch a film where a really cute girl stares into the camera and read a phone book for two hours.  Croze repeating the alphabet is probably as close as I'm going to get.  Haunting and gorgeous, and one of my favorites from this fest.

Screengrab  Mike D’Angelo

Sometimes the gulf between hardcore cineastes and the rest of the movie-watching world seems so vast as to be truly unbridgeable. A few years ago, Alejandro Amenábar's The Sea Inside, starring Javier Bardem as a paraplegic fighting for the right to commit suicide, captivated festival audiences in multiple countries and took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Film — which rather surprised me and my film-buff friends, since we'd all dismissed it as maudlin, heavy-handed swill. Julian Schnabel's superficially similar The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on the memoir by French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, doesn't pluck at the heartstrings quite so clumsily or insistently, but I was still startled — will I never learn? — to pick up the trades this afternoon* and discover that it's being hailed as brilliant, stunning, the new Palme d'Or frontrunner. Really? In a festival delectably top-heavy with the radical and the visionary, this mundane paean to the indomitable human spirit is what gets everyone all fired up?

That said, I'm grateful that Schnabel eventually ditches his most unorthodox device and settles into a more conventional visual rhythm. Bauby, who at the time of his cerebrovascular stroke was the Paris editor of Elle, awakens from a coma only to find himself completely paralyzed; for two full reels — nearly 40 minutes of screen time — we see the world exclusively from his stationary vantage point. Schnabel clearly wants us to feel as trapped as his afflicted hero, but the first-person camera style is so unnatural that it invariably comes across as a gimmick; once the film begins to alternate between interior and exterior views, time spent inside Bauby's diving bell becomes far more affecting.

As I said, the film was adapted from Bauby's memoir, and nobody with an ounce of empathy could fail to be moved by the true story of its painstaking creation, as Bauby dictates the entire book one character at a time, listening as his stenographer (Anne Consigny) recites the alphabet (in order of frequency in the French language) and blinking his left eyelid — the only muscle in his control — to indicate that she's reached the letter he wants. Schnabel was also wise to cast Mathieu Amalric, with his unusually expressive and already slightly bulging eyes, as Bauby — the disjunction between his sarcastic and penetrating thoughts (heard in voiceover) and his imploring, stricken gaze is genuinely heartrending. Still, it's the real-life story, not the artistry involved in its telling, that does all the heavy lifting here. All Schnabel does is avoid screwing it up.

Screen International   Allan Hunter


An astonishing assertion of the human spirit in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell And The Butterfly was one of the publishing sensations of the 1990s, selling in excess of 1 million copies.

Julian Schnabel's flawless adaptation treads a similar line between the heartbreaking and the life-affirming to create a deeply moving film with the emotional power of My Left Foot or The Sea Inside. Familiarity with the memoir combined with critical acclaim for the film should create a potent upscale attraction with the definite possibility of across-the-board awards consideration.

Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) was the rakish, high-flying Paris-based editor of Elle when he suffered a massive stroke in December 1995. In the past he would almost certainly have died. The irony of modern medical advances was that he survived but only to find himself paralysed and without the power of speech. His body had become a prison.

The film begins by placing us in Bauby's situation. The milky blur of the screen image conveys Bauby's emergence from a three week coma. A doctor informs him that he is in a naval hospital at Berck-sur-Mer near Calais. He cannot speak or move. Communication is restricted to the blinking of an eye. One blink signifies yes. Two blinks signify no. This is to be his life.

The realisation of his desperate situation is slow to come but Schnabel keeps us inside Bauby's head for at least the first 20 minutes of the film. Subjective camerawork allows us to see only what Bauby sees. The contrast is provided by the running commentary of his wry voice-over as he grapples with self-pity, suicidal thoughts, hope and the notion that he has become a castaway on a distant island of loneliness.

Composing an entire film of subjective camerawork and abstract images might test the most dedicated cinemagoer and The Diving Bell And The Butterfly soon expands its vision to incorporate flashbacks and encounters that help us to build a sense of Bauby's previous life. He comes to characterise his situation as the equivalent of being trapped in an old-fashioned diving bell, floating through the murky waters of the ocean.

He also realises that whilst his body is trapped his imagination remains free to roam at will. In his mind, he can be skiing down a mountain, surfing the highest waves, making exquisite love or savouring a feast of seafood delicacies. The power of the imagination is his triumph. Eventually he decides to write a book using his ability to blink to choose letters from a specially adapted alphabet and start forming words.

Told with humour and humanity, The Diving Bell cannot fail to touch any audience. It allows the viewer to wonder how they might respond in such circumstances and to marvel at both Bauby's achievements and the incredible dedication of those who cared for him.

Empathy is instantly created by some commendable performances, notably from Marie-Josee Croze as the saintly speech therapist who patiently steered Bauby away from self-pity, a warm Emmanuelle Seigner as Bauby's loyal estranged wife Celine and from Max Von Sydow as Bauby's elderly father Papinou. Von Sydow has only two major scenes in the film but invests them with such a depth of emotion that Papinou becomes