Lamentations of the Poor

Stray Dogs indulges in the overlong, static takes that Tsai Ming Liang is known for. The film opens with a long scene of a woman brushing her hair in front of two sleeping children; so, fair warning to the audience. Such shenanigans made an earlier film of his, Good Bye Dragon Inn, wretchedly tedious when I watched it several years ago. But this recent film has interesting enough subject matter and even a bit of, dare I say it, melodrama to hold my interest.

The movie shows the everyday lives of a homeless family in Taipei. They squat in an abandoned apartment building, with no running water or electricity. By day the father holds an advertising sign at a busy street intersection, come rain or shine. (I’m assuming the “shine” part, since all we see is a cold, windy rain.) The mother works as a supermarket inventory clerk. Actually, “mother” is an interpretation, since the adult female figure is played by three women and may in fact be three characters, only one of whom works in the store. At any rate, the two children seem to flourish despite their privation; the father’s soul is badly crumpled; and the mother is at the verge of shattering. The details of life on the margins put meat on the movie’s bones, and the moments of the adults’ darkest despair give it heart.

This one’s a well-made downer.

Stray Dogs (reviews)
Directed by Tsai Ming Liang
Written by Tung Cheng-Yu, Tsai Ming Liang, and Peng Fei Song
Language: Mandarin
Running time: 136 minutes
DVD release date: February 10, 2015

Love and Sorrow

In Lilting, Junn (Cheng Pei-Pei) lives alone in London but speaks no English; she depends on her adult son Kai (Andrew Leung), who divides his time between her and his good friend Richard (Ben Whishaw), whom she doesn’t particularly like. When Kai dies suddenly, Junn is baffled by Richard’s solicitousness. After a man her age shows signs of romatic interest in her, Richard hires a translator to help the two communicate. Why is Richard getting so involved in her life? Well, Kai never quite got around to revealing to Junn that he was gay and that Richard was his lover.

This is a low-key film, gently showing Junn in her loneliness and isolation and Richard in his melancholy as the two patch together a post-mortem relationship. Fine performances by these two actors.

Lilting (reviews)
Directed and written by Hong Khaou
Languages: English and Mandarin
Running time: 86 minutes
DVD release date: February 10, 2015

Safe Harbor

Le Havre tells the warm, sometimes comical, tale of a Gabonese boy, hiding from the authorities in a French port city. The boy Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) is part of a group of African refugees being smuggled inside a shipping container; he runs off when they are found by the police. Soon he falls into the care of a shoe shine man, Marcel (André Wilms), and his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen). While Marcel tries to find Idrissa’s relatives, he is cared for by a number of Marcel’s neighbors and tacitly ignored by a local police inspector (Jean-Pierre Darroussin).

This is an optimistic film (and therefore a fairy tale, to some); the sense of community and unexpected goodwill reminds me of Casablanca or Cannery Row. I liked it a lot. It certainly stands on its own as a delightful movie, but it also helps wash away the sour aftertaste of harsher flicks (such as the one I will mention momentarily).

Le Havre (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Aki Kaurismäki
Language: French
Running time: 93 minutes
DVD release date: July 31, 2012

* * *

Capital is Costa-Gavras’s acidic portrait of bankers. When a French bank CEO falls ill, his protégé steps in. (This tale of white, mostly male business leaders doesn’t stint on symbolism; the illness is testicular cancer.) Having ascended to the top, Marc Tourneil (Gad Elmaleh) must resort to compromise and deception to keep his position. In particular, he must fend off an acquisitive America hedge fund headed by Dittmar Rigule (Gabriel Byrne). This results in a lot of dry maneuvering and a resolution about as cynical as you might expect. Costa-Gavras completists won’t suffer too badly, but those uncompelled to watch will save themselves a couple of mildly dreary hours.

Bad Guys

The Living offers up three types of villain–the sympathetic, the tragic, and the iconic. Our sympathetic villain starts the picture: Teddy (Fran Kranz) wakes up in his living room with only dim memories of a drinking binge from the night before. He washes his bloody hands and abraded knuckles and goes in search of his wife Molly (Jocelyn Donahue), who has fled to her mother’s. Teddy is horrified upon seeing Molly’s smashed face. He is penitent and docile; later on, when he and Molly have reconciled somewhat, he is even sweet.

Molly’s brother Gordon (Kenny Wormald) is not reconciled; he has seen enough. A co-worker gives Gordon the phone number of an ex-con who can permanently solve the abusive drunk problem. After much hesitation Gordon picks up the phone. Gordon is our tragic villain; he has sought out evil and doomed himself.

The ex-con, Howard (Chris Mulkey), is our iconic villain, and Mulkey’s Mitchumesque performance is the reason to watch the movie. Howard is not particularly angry or energetic. He seems to be perfectly fine with killing. He may even enjoy it.

Nice little drama.

The Living (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Jack Bryan
Running time: 91 minutes
DVD release date: May 19, 2015

My Father’s Glory

Papirosen is a sort of accidental documentary. Young Gastón Solnicki gets a camera and starts filming his family members. He is relentless; early in the film one subject calls him an asshole. Then he discovers the extent to which his family history has been filmed, in Super 8 and other formats, over the past 40 years. Plenty for a feature-length film!

But a good one, interesting to people outside the family? Yes, happily. Solnicki’s grandmother, still living in the 2000’s, hid out from the Holocaust in Poland, and shortly after the war ended, Solnicki’s father Victor was born. The family migrated to Czechoslovakia and lived there for several years before moving on to Argentina. Victor married and had three children. Gastón’s brother excuses himself from most of the film, but his sister provides some contemporary family drama.

But Victor, now 70-ish, is the unquestionable star of the film. He reminisces over songs from his youth–“Papirosen” was one of his favorites–and he seeks out antique toys identical to the ones he played with, partly to reinforce his filial bond with his mother. His son adores him, clearly; he is a character worthy of a film.

Papirosen (reviews)
Directed by Gastón Solnicki
Language: Spanish, with a little English, Polish, and Hebrew
Running time: 76 minutes
DVD release scheduled for August 23, 2016

Kein Sturm, Kein Drang

I found myself utterly enchanted by The Strange Little Cat, which eavesdrops on a family in a crowded Berlin apartment over the course of a day. There is little plot to speak of. Two parents, three children, a dog, and a cat mill about the place, preparing for an evening meal to which other relatives are invited. They talk, they handle little crises: A glass tumbler rolls off a table, hits the floor, and shatters; no one reacts; the little girl cuts herself on a shard; the parents, unruffled, deal with the injury. Domesticity has solved the world’s problems.

The calmest of all is the cinematographer. Much of the film consists of long takes with a still camera. The action drifts in and out of frame, according to whim.

You would expect this lack of drama to have a dulling effect. Instead, the vacancy is filled by humor. Early on, the mother tells about a trip to the movies. Seated in the theater, she was trapped between a sleeping grandmother and a man who heedlessly invaded her personal space. I got more amusement from that anecdote than I have gotten from entire films by Roy Andersson.

The Strange Little Cat (reviews)
Directed and written by Ramon Zürcher
Language: German
Running time: 72 minutes
DVD release date: January 13, 2015

Report from the Front

The House I Live In is an excellent wide-ranging survey of the so-called war on drugs. Writer/director Eugene Jarecki has a personal connection: The housekeeper who helped raise him lost a son to drug abuse. The trade in illegal drugs has devastated many neighborhoods; but so, as the film makes very clear, has the war on drugs.

A little ways in, the documentary goes back to the beginning and reinforces the film’s tagline: “The war on drugs has never been about drugs.” The first drug laws, against opium and heroin, were passed in California as a means of singling out the state’s Asian population for persecution. Later laws against marijuana were passed with Mexican immigrants in mind. And laws against different forms of cocaine were clearly written to impose much stricter penalties on the black community.

I am often delighted when some little fact overturns my expectations. Here is such a morsel: The original war on drugs proposed by Richard Nixon devoted two thirds of its resources to treatment and only one third to law enforcement. Needless to say, in subsequent years this ratio has not held.

A prominent talking head employed in this documentary is David Simon, journalist and television writer/producer. As a reporter covering crime, Simon witnessed the effects of the drug war first-hand. Even the quality of police work was affected: An officer could hone his detective skills on robberies and homicides, spending days or weeks to get a single arrest; or he could go for the low-hanging fruit, picking off street-level drug dealers and padding his arrest count.

Since the film came out in 2012, a few public officials have shown a willingness to rethink the war on drugs. But we are far from fixing our approach to the drug problem, and the film still lands some solid punches.

The House I Live In (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Eugene Jarecki
Awareded U.S. Grand Jury Prize, Documentary, at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival
Running time: 109 minutes
DVD release date: July 2, 2013