Sunday, April 23, 2017

Film Fest II

This Egyptian film, the best that I've seen at the festival so far,  is shot entirely within the confines of a police paddy wagon. Of course, the people incarcerated in the van sometimes look out the windows, and we see what they see. But the point of view is always from within the van, and most of the action is centered there.

Who are these people? The first two to be jailed are journalists, one of them Egyptian, the other Egyptian/American. Others are tossed in during the first ten minutes of the film. Some of them are casual protesters, others are members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), whom the police are on the lookout for. Later a Mullah and his daughter are rounded up. Eventually, after a few missteps, even  a member of the police force finds himself inside. Thus, the film falls into that time-honored genre that also includes Maupassant's short novel Ball of Fat, which takes places in a stagecoach during the Franco-Prussian War, and John Ford's Wild West classic Stagecoach.

Inside the van, tensions arise between various factions. Meanwhile the violence ebbs and flows outside, and soon doctrinaire religious arguments wither in the face of more personal problems: someone catches a bullet; someone needs to pee. With no room in the local prisons to inter anyone, the police eventually abandon the van entirely.

Perhaps eighty percent of the dialog is delivered at shouting level. But as darkness descends things quiet down ... for a while. A harrowing, visceral experience, from which there appears to be no way out. 

The King's Choice
Most history texts give the German invasion of Norway three sentences at best. In this superbly realized film, we experience it moment by moment. The film focuses its attention on the decision facing King Haakon VII whether to abdicate, collaborate with the new pro-German government of the unpopular Fascist Quisling, who has seized power via a coup d' etat, or attempt an escape. The German ambassador to Norway is convinced he can work out a peaceful solution, though he can't seem to convince his fellow Nazis to put the invasion on hold while he does so. The king himself recognizes that further resistance would be futile and cost many Norwegian lives, though if he capitulated, it would further undermine the democratic institutions Hitler is seeking to destroy.
The period detail is expertly rendered, and also the panic that arises when civilian life is suddenly upended by aerial attacks and the arrival of foreign troops.  Further drama is supplied by the differing approaches of Haakon and his son, Olav, as to how to respond to the situation.

One Week and a Day
A comedy about grieving? Indeed. Eyal and his wife, Vicky, have lost their son. As the last day of the week long Shiva comes to an end, Eyal remains bitter and cantankerous. (Maybe he's always been like that?) But when he returns to the hospice to retrieve a blanket, he comes upon his son's medical marijuana, and decides to "loosen up." Trouble is, he can't seem to roll a joint successfully. He enlists the help of a neighbor kid, Zoller, who was once his son's friend, and together the two of them embark on a series of silly, touching, and absurd adventures.

The film works because director Asoph Polonsky keeps to the essentials, and establishes a delicate counterpoint between Eyal, who never quite loses his latently hostile attitude toward everything from playing checkers to air guitar, and Zoller, who turns out to be a true space cadet. Genuine humanity shows its face now and then, especially at the cemetery and also at the hospice, where a sweet young girl lightens the mood at a critical juncture as this unlikely trio perform an "air" operation on her dying mother. The ending is also perfect--though I'm not going to descfribe it here.

----But not every film in the festival is a masterpiece. Far from it. The following films were worthwhile, but not entirely satisfying ...

The Theater of Life
During the Milan 2015 World’s Fair, renowned chef Massimo Bottura had an idea. Rather than tossing out the food being wasted every day at the expo, why not create meals for the refugees and homeless of Milan out of it? The result was the creation of Refettorio Ambrosiano, a stylish soup kitchen serving meals prepared by some of the world's most eminent chefs.

The filmmakers listen in on the kitchen-chatter of the chefs, and also include a number of mouth-watering food segments, but they spend more of the film interviewing the homeless individuals involved to find out who they are and what brought them to such a low point in life. Some are refugees from Africa, others are drug addicts, or simply unskilled laborers whose lives have come undone.

Director Peter Svatek comments: “What is home for a homeless person or a political refugee? Massimo says chefs can no longer cook for just the elite ignoring the ethical issues about feeding the planet. These are the questions the film tackles. The Refettorio became a home. It was fascinating and beautiful to see how these great chefs transformed waste food into delicious meals."

All the same, it makes for an odd juxtaposition of worlds, raising the question of whether haut cuisine should even be pursued or supported  in a world where, for many, misfortune and suffering are always right around the corner.

Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry

This documentary is ostensibly about poet, essayist, and agricultural reformer Wendell Berry, but we learn very little about the man in the course of it, except that he liked to look out the window of his office toward his farm. Much of the film is devoted to interviewing one or two farmers who found it necessary to buy more machinery, chemicals, and land in order to survive economically. But this is a very old story by now, and it has been told better elsewhere. We spend another large chunk of time listening to a man named Steve Smith talk about how he got into organic farming because industrial farming simply wasn't much fun. (At the time, Smith had never heard of Wendell Berry.) A likeable guy, but once again, very old news.

Some of the most rewarding moments are given over to an interview with Berry's wife, Tanya, who has some quizzical and insightful things to say about her husband and the life they led together. Berry himself is represented only in still photographs, sound bites from a debate he engaged in long, long with then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, and a video of a short segment of a speech he gave in Spokane, WA back when people were wearing bellbottoms.

Lipstick Under My Burka

The single word that might best describe this film is one that, in my day, was popular among junior high kids: immature. It chronicles the love lives of four women in a small town in India, with a voice-over drawn from a Harlequin Romance that one of the four is reading. (Really.) All of these women want to have a more adventurous and sexually fulfilling life, free of the oppressive demands of their neighborhoods, fathers, boyfriends, or fiancés. Such desires are not only understandable, but they lead to plenty of humorous and moving episodes of generational and cross-gender conflict and self-revelation. The issues raised by the film are very real, and touches of humanity are everywhere, but the film is overly ambitious, and as a result, the characterizations are shallow, the situations stereotypical, the resolutions jejune. In comparison with any film by Asghar Farhadi, for example, nothing in the movie has much gravity.

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