Failure to Re-Launch

A young man visits his parents when his mother has a brief health emergency, then finds himself unable to leave when the emergency is over: This is the premise (and practically the whole story) of Momma’s Man. Mikey (Matt Boren) can’t seem to abandon his old attic bedroom in his parents’ rat nest of a New York apartment; he oozes into his box of childhood mementos like an explorer sinking in quicksand. Never mind his wife and infant daughter in California; never mind his job; that darned airline just won’t issue him a ticket to go back west.

Boren’s Mikey is a harmless shlub, on hiatus from reality, trying halfheartedly to believe he’s returned triumphantly to the old neighborhood for good. His parents (Flo and Ken Jacobs) are tolerant, if a bit put off about sharing their home with a man-child; they’ll give him space to work through his existential crisis.

Not a lot happens here, but Mikey’s odd regression held my interest throughout the film.

Momma’s Man (reviews)
Directed and written by Azazel Jacobs
Running time: 94 minutes
DVD release date: May 5, 2009

The Settlers Are Coming

5 Broken Cameras, co-directed by a Palestinian and an Israeli, tells the story of a West Bank hamlet as an Israeli settlement encroaches upon its territory. Emad, a farmer, lives in Bil’in, and he gets a video camera when his fourth son is born in 2005. He plans to film his newborn, but he quickly learns that the camera can also document his village’s efforts to preserve itself from illegal land grabs. So he films the siege of Bil’in.

The townspeople are joined by Israeli allies and, eventually, members of the international community, as the village becomes a focal point in the struggle against the theft of territory. Emad is right there on the front lines, and from time to time his camera is broken–usually by an Israeli settler or soldier. Over five years or so he goes through five cameras.

This is a very personal film–no talking heads to give us an overview of the situation or tell us the history of the Israeli settlements. Still, it’s hard to imagine an alternate point of view that justifies the stealthy seizure of land (Israeli law prohibits the dismantling of concrete structures) or the burning of olive trees (which vibrates sympathetically with the slaughter of domesticated animals in the beginning of Virunga).

Of course, I can hardly pass judgment from on high, what with my country’s history of displacement of the American Indians. But 5 Broken Cameras offers powerful testimony.

5 Broken Cameras (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
Languages: Arabic, Hebrew, and a little English
Running time: 94 minutes
DVD release date: January 15, 2013

Slain

Kurt Kuenne grew up in California’s Silicon Valley, and as a kid he loved making movies. All of his movies starred his close friend Andrew Bagby, an outgoing, puckish kid who grew up to look a bit like Jack Black. As an adult, Kuenne became a maker of fictional and documentary feature films. When he found out his lifelong friend Andrew had been murdered, he decided to make a film about Andrew’s life. And when an infant son appeared, the film gained form and purpose.

I have elided a few details of Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, to be discovered by viewers upon watching the film. It’s an affectionate portrait of a widely loved man, snappily edited and interwoven with a gripping criminal justice drama, as efforts are made (and not made) to find, detain, and try Andrew’s killer. The crime story is told with more fury than balance, but an even-handed account would only slightly diminish the level of horror. The tale is still astonishing, and the presentation is still brilliant.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Kurt Kuenne
Running time: 93 minutes
DVD release date: February 24, 2009

Provence Romance

Watching The Well-Digger’s Daughter is like curling up in a comfy chair with a classic novel. The setting–Provence, a century ago–is familiar. (I was taken back to My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle.) The story is a gentle melodrama: A Paris-educated girl from a working-class family in the South of France has just turned 18; she meets and quickly falls for the son of a wealthy merchant and landowner; she becomes pregnant; the boy is called off to war, and the girl is given the impression he doesn’t care about her; the families come into conflict. There are other complications, but the resolution is almost as clean and satisfying as the finale of a comic opera by Mozart.

Daniel Auteuil, who adapted the screenplay from a previous film, directs and plays Pascal, the well-digger. Pascal is straightforward but not simple; when social mores tell him to react one way and his heart feels differently, we see both impulses and the struggle between them. In fact, all the major characters get room to breathe, to exist in three dimensions. The closest thing to a hand-rubbing villain, the merchant’s wife, will get a bit of sympathy from us by the end of the film.

Add to this the timeless beauty of Provence, the lightly-applied score by Alexandre Desplat, and the restrained filmmaking (for instance, no explicit sex), and we are in for humane, expertly-made entertainment.

The Well-Digger’s Daughter (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Daniel Auteuil, based on Marcel Pagnol’s screenplay for the 1940 film
Language: French
Running time: 109 minutes
DVD release date: December 26, 2012

Innkeeper

Winter Sleep uses its considerable length (3¼ hours) like a police interrogation, gradually drawing out the true nature of its main characters, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) and his young wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), owners of a tourist hotel in remote, scenic Anatolia. The game is tipped off from the start: Aydin gathers mushrooms in the wild, planning to sauté them for one of his guests–only to have the offered treat turned down. He is disappointed and puzzled, only able to see the world through his own eyes. One tragedy of the film is that a person so blinded is in a position of power in his community (Aydin also owns the homes of many local people). His own perfectly reasonable logic (grounded in his self-interest) is disastrous to his neighbors; he is a smiling tyrant.

Nihal, who seems to be more sympathetic to the locals, turns out to be just as insensitive. In two completely separate, brilliantly composed scenes, each blunders into a course of action that utterly humiliates the local imam.

Rich characters, some cultural insight–this is what you get for a movie that lasts about as long as an average NFL game. Less violence, though.

Winter Sleep (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Written by Ebru Ceylan and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, based on a couple of stories by Chekhov
Award: 2014 Palme d’Or, Cannes Film Festival
Language: Turkish, with a little English
Running time: 196 minutes
DVD release date: May 5, 2015

Hell Is Other People’s Death

The Babadook is an Australian horror film which has garnered extravagant praise from some reviewers. It is quite a good movie, and much of that virtue comes from the pleasure of unlocking its secrets afterward, alone or with friends. For the most part, I will try to hold back from that spoilery territory.

Amelia (Essie Davis) and her going-on-seven-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) live in a big house. Sam’s father died in a car accident the day Sam was born; he was driving Amelia to the hospital. Every year around Sam’s birthday, Amelia grieves. Sam has become a frightened but resourceful child; he obsesses over being ready to fight off the monsters he is sure are coming.

One night a week or so before his birthday, Sam picks a previously unnoticed book, titled The Babadook, for Amelia to read him at bedtime. The book features a menacing Something, the Babadook, that is coming for them, and whose arrival is to be announced by a portentious threefold knock.

Needless to say, Sam, already a discipline problem at school, goes a bit nuts. And there we have it: grieving mother, paranoid kid, looming monster visit. Throw in a few dark premonitions and we’ve got a story that can really work on the viewer.

The Babadook (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Jennifer Kent
Running time: 93 minutes
DVD release date: April 14, 2015

* * *

Many critics also loved Godard’s Goodbye to Language, which features a pair of lovers (often unsexily naked), an assassination, and a wandering dog. Don’t let the film’s incomprehensibility throw you, suggested one critic; just love it. I didn’t love it; the film’s incomprehensibility threw me.

Alps is another cinematic étude (succeeding Dogtooth) by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. Here, a small group of entrepreneurs offer to soothe the bereaved by substituting for the recently deceased. A few details of the late loved ones–clothing, interests, behaviors–are taken on, but the impersonations are by no means thorough or even credible. Still, some are comforted, and the film explores the small motifs by which we connect with others.

Like its predecessor, Alps feels as if it was written by extraterrestrials with a slightly-off understanding of human behavior. The exercise should provide entertainment to some and a skewed variation on entertainment to others.

Justified

Concerning Violence comes with the subtitle: Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense. These scenes are mostly film clips from colonial Africa in the 1970’s, and the argument is made that violence is the only useful response to colonialism.

The film intends to shake us up. After an academic introduction, we are found aboard a helicopter, from which domesticated animals are massacred as a means of sapping the strength of the anti-colonial insurgency. The animal slaughter is gut-wrenching, as is a later shot of a maimed mother and child, victims of colonial shelling.

The nine scenes illustrate a narration (read by Lauryn Hill) which runs throughout the movie, drawn from a controversial 1961 book which analyzed the effects of colonization in Africa. By the end of the documentary, it’s hard to condemn the colonial victims who took up arms.

Concerning Violence (reviews)
Directed by Göran Hugo Olsson
Written by Göran Hugo Olsson, using extended quotations from The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon
Running time: 89 minutes
Languages: English, French, Swedish, and Portuguese
DVD release date: May 5, 2015

* * *

A couple of things set me against Khodorkovsky, Cyril Tuschi’s 2011 documentary about the imprisoned Russian industrialist. First: At various points the documentarian injects himself into the story; it becomes How I Tried to Do a Film About Khodorkovsky. In some cases this approach can work (Roger and Me, for instance), but not here. Second: I was put off by the animated reenactment of Khodorkovsky’s arrest. The animation, characters outlined in white on a black background, is revisited several times. I found it aesthetically lacking.

Maybe these are idiosyncratic quibbles.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia sold off many of its state-owned assets to Russian citizens at bargain-basement prices. The new tycoons made out like bandits, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky was reportedly one of the most notorious kleptocrats. But at some point he had a change of heart and became one of the (comparatively) good guys. In 2003 he got crosswise with Vladimir Putin in a very public way, so his company was yoinked from him and he was tossed in jail.

Today Khodorkovsky lives in Switzerland, following his 2013 release from prison. Eventually Putin will go into decline, and it’s easy to imagine a triumphant return to Russia by the expat.