The Musician and the Tattoo Artist

The Broken Circle Breakdown uses a swirling chronology to tell a family melodrama. Didier (Johan Heldenbergh is a Flemish musician who meets Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist; the two quickly fall in love. He plays banjo in a bluegrass band, which she soon joins as a singer. Didier and Elise marry, and the vigorous melancholy of the music complements the early joy and later tragedy of their relationship.

Disparate pieces of this story are gathered up and presented in a whirl, and the themes touched on feature alternating aspects: America as a place of energy and freedom and retrograde politics; religion as a plague and a comfort. Even the film’s musical touchstone–“Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)”–contains a rhythmic hiccup caused by alternating time signatures.

In short: It’s a strongly affecting story of love and loss, all to the tune of homespun music.

The Broken Circle Breakdown (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Felix van Groeningen
Written by Carl Joos and Felix van Groeningen, based on a play by Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels
Languages: Flemish, English
Award: 2014 César for Best Foreign Film
Running time: 112 minutes
DVD release date: March 11, 2014

One People, Three Nations

Salman Rushdie is one of the great fiction writers of our time, so it is an exciting event when one of his best novels is made into a film–more so since Rushdie wrote the adaptation himself and provides the movie’s narration. Midnight’s Children does not disappoint. It’s no substitute for the book, nor even a supplement to it; but besides being an entertaining film in its own right, it just may tempt some viewers into checking out the source material.

The central character is Saleem Sinai (played as an adult by Satya Bhabha), born at midnight on August 15, 1947, the instant of India’s independence from Britain. The story begins with Saleem’s grandfather and continues chronologically through Saleem’s adulthood, interweaving the family story with major events in the history of India, Pakistan, and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The pace of the film is brisk, but it never feels rushed. There is melodrama (babies switched at birth!) and magic–Saleem develops a psychic bond with other Indians born at the same time as he. Saturated colors help paint a fully exotic picture of India. Unlike most films, this one’s politics are up front: The pro-partition agitators have violence in their hearts; a Prime Minister denoted as The Lady (Sarita Choudhury) is an anti-democratic tyrant.

The glory, though, is in the storytelling. I’ve left out major characters and plot points. They should be encountered fresh by the audience. Enjoy.

Midnight’s Children (reviews)
Directed by Deepa Mehta
Written by Salman Rushdie, based on his novel
Languages: English, Hindi
Running time: 143 minutes
DVD release date: October 8, 2013

Guilty of Innocence

In the Fog takes place in German-occupied Belarus during the Second World War. Three men are marched into a village square and hanged for partisan activity. The camera pans away from the actual execution.

Two armed men, partisans, work their way through to the woods, headed to the farm of Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy). They suspect him of collaboration with the Germans. At the farm, they insist he come with them, not giving his wife time to pack his favorite snack (an onion and lard). He knows he is innocent, but he also knows circumstances make him look guilty. He asks if he should bring a shovel; they say yes.

So begins this very fine story of the moral fog of an occupied people. The three men are the primary focus of the remainder of the film. They are connected as fellow villagers and fellow victims of the Germans; they extend certain courtesies to one another. Flashbacks fill in backstories and connect the public hanging with the anticipated retaliation against the farmer. An event causes a modification of plans, but the story plays out grimly enough.

What more can one say? There is no music, which would detract from the intensity of the story. The men are portrayed sympathetically. Bad things do not arise from their villainy; they are just in a bad place.

In the Fog (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Sergey Loznitsa, based on a novel by Vasiliy Bykov
Language: Russian
Running time: 128 minutes
DVD release date: September 17, 2013

Meteor

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me tells the story of an ill-fated Memphis band from the ’70s that became a cult favorite after it broke up. When Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel formed Big Star in 1971, there was no particular sound dominating the local pop scene, so the group was able to develop its own personality, relatively free of other influences. The band was named after a local supermarket, and they held to that combination of irony and ambition in naming their first two LPs, #1 Record and Radio City. Unfortunately they had signed with Stax Records just as that label was sputtering toward bankruptcy. The records were well-received–an early highlight of the documentary is a series of interviews about Big Star’s eye-opening performance at a rock critics’ convention–but they failed commercially.

Chilton and Bell were the main creative forces of the group. After Bell’s death in a car crash, the band, supplemented by other local musicians (including pianist/photographer William Eggleston), recorded a series of tracks that eventually became Third/Sister Lovers. Most of the songs were Chilton’s and reflected his darkening mood. (The song “Big Black Car” includes the lyric “Nothing can hurt me” and to this listener gives the impression of a flower wilting in on itself.)

In the film, music from those three albums is cited as a major influence by members of better-known independent rock bands such as R.E.M. and The Flaming Lips. The belated recognition of the band prompted Chilton to reconstitute the band in 1993 with Stephens and a couple of new musicians. But the main focus of the documentary is the group’s first incarnation. It’s a nice bit of rock history.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori
Running time: 100 minutes
DVD release date: November 26, 2013

Not Actually As Long As the Nineteenth Century

Mysteries of Lisbon may be the most elegant film I have ever seen. Based on an 1854 novel, it tells the interweaving stories of an abandoned boy and the priest who takes care of him. There are aristocrats and a pirate, secret identities and hidden bloodlines, infidelities, betrayals, murder, and even a challenge to a duel. None of this is stuffy or camp; all of it is beautifully portrayed.

The viewer should be prepared for a 4½-hour film. I wasn’t, entirely, and at times found myself wondering Whose flashback is this anyway? Yet I enjoyed the film–enough to recommend it with this advisory. Those on the fence may wish to consult the list of reviews linked below.

Mysteries of Lisbon (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Raul Ruiz
Written by Carlos Saboga, based on a novel by Camilo Castelo Branco
Languages: Portuguese, French
Running time: 266 minutes
DVD release date: January 17, 2012

Reverberations

Roman Polanski’s 2011 film, Carnage, was a moderately pleasing comedy of manners, based on a four-character play. His latest, Venus in Fur, comes from a two-person play and is even more delightful. (What’s next? A one-man show? An episode of Orphan Black?) Set in Paris, it brings a late-arriving actress, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), out of a thunderstorm into a theater, where she hopes to audition for a play, Venus in Fur. But everyone has left except for the playwright/director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), and he is tired after watching a succession of ill-suited women audition for the female lead, also named Vanda. Nevertheless, Vanda persuades Thomas to let her audition, with him reading the other character’s lines. They end up reading the entire play, and the film tells the story of that run-through.

The ur-text for the film and the play-within-a-film is Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, which tells the story of a man who falls for a woman and wishes to be dominated by her. Polanski’s movie is mirrors and epicycles and echoes: Seigner is Polanski’s wife, and Amalric looks like a Chinatown-era Polanski, handsomed up a bit. Vanda and Thomas flip-flop power relationships, though she generally dominates (she arrives with preternatural knowledge of play and playwright); one could read into this an apologia for Polanski’s relationships with women, but the film clearly has deeper layers than that. But enough of this complexity! If all you make of this is two splendid, well-matched actors in clever interplay for an hour and a half–well, don’t beat yourself up.

Venus in Fur (reviews)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by David Ives and Roman Polanski, based on a play by Ives, inspired by the novella Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
Language: French
Running time: 96 minutes
Award: Best Director, 2014 César Awards
DVD release date: October 14, 2014

* * *

Kim Ki-duk’s Pietà tells the story of a loan shark whose brutal ways are disrupted when a woman claiming to be his mother shows up. The precision with which the film is made and a gesture toward redemption in the story do not quite justify the sadism inflicted upon the onscreen victims and the audience, with or without the story’s muddled ending.

A Small Story in a Small Place

Moviegoers looking for respite from the latest wave of blockbusters should check out Ilo Ilo, a modest film from Singapore which won the 2013 Camera d’Or (for first-time feature filmmakers) at Cannes. Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) and Teck (Chen Tian Wen) are the mother and father of a bratty ten-year-old boy, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler). Both parents work, and Jiale’s antics are disruptive enough that they decide to hire a Filipino maid/nanny to help manage the household. When Teresa (Angeli Bayani) arrives, Hwee Leng immediately takes possession of her passport; for lodging, Teresa will sleep on a mat in Jiale’s room. The brief time Teresa spends with this middle-class Singapore family, and the bonds she forms with them, make up the film.

This occurs in 1997, as the Asian financial crisis hits Singapore. Money worries loom, and each of the four main characters comes up with a plan to deal with the crisis. The viewer may choose to contrast these plans, but their differences are not thrown into relief in any sort of heavy-handed manner. Overall, this movie makes a virtue of subtlety, holding back one or two steps from melodrama. Events move in the expected direction: Teresa learns how to get by in a foreign land; Jiale matures a little and grows fond of his nanny; Hwee Leng becomes a little less peremptory with the hired help. When Teresa and the family part company at the end, the tug on the moviegoer’s heart is fully earned.

Ilo Ilo (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Anthony Chen
Languages: Mandarin, Tagalog, English, and Hokkien
Running time: 99 minutes
DVD release date: September 16, 2014

* * *

Critics have generally praised Klown, a Danish comedy about two transgressive men and a boy on a misbegotten canoeing and camping trip. Frank (Frank Hvam) is an idiot; his stunts that hurt and embarrass others are moronic, but they contain no malice. Casper (Casper Christensen) is just a bad person. In the end Frank’s victims forgive him because he is a wuvvable foo, and Casper isn’t tarred and feathered because he is a friend of Frank. As I say, many critics went for this, and if you are less grumpy and uptight than yours truly, you may enjoy this painful film as well.