A Heritage of Fear and Music

The Milk of Sorrow is a sort of fairy tale, showing the trauma of one generation passed down to the next. Fausta (Magaly Solier) is a young, diffident Peruvian villager whose mother was raped during the Shining Path terrorism of the 1980’s. When her mother dies, Fausta needs money to pay for a proper burial; so, against her inclinations, she takes a job in Lima as a house servant to Aída (Susy Sánchez), a well-to-do musician. Looking for new material to perform and taking advantage of the young woman’s need, Aída offers Fausta a pearl for each folk song she can recite. Meanwhile, Fausta slowly warms to the gardener Noé (Efraín Solís). Can she overcome her shyness (which features a fabulous aspect I won’t spoil)?

Some of the camera work feels out of sync with the simple story: A conversation between two characters, framed by latticework, and a scene of two women picking up spilled pearls belong to a more elegant subject. But fundamentally the movie is a well-told, satisfying story; Solier gives a captivating, sympathetic performance as a flower long held back from blooming.

The Milk of Sorrow (reviews)
Directed and written by Claudia Llosa
Languages: Spanish and Quechoa
Running time: 98 minutes
Award: 2009 Golden Bear, Berlin International Film Festival
DVD release date: December 7, 2010

* * *

The Duke of Burgundy shows two women in a dominant/submissive relationship, living in a mansion. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who plays the dom role, studies and lectures on lepidopterans; Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) is the sub but also calls the shots by writing the roleplaying scripts. Cynthia is not enthusiastic about her role, but she carries it out for Evelyn’s sake; the relationship bobbles like a rowboat on rough water but is not overturned.

The film is almost universally loved by critics, and its acting, cinematography, and originality are rightly praised. I never warmed to it. The repetition of the scenarios grew a bit tiresome; and the interjection of brief shots of butterflies, moths, caterpillars, and grubs tipped into overdone artiness.

Minding the Store

The Grocer’s Son is a gentle drama set in the summery, picturesque French countryside. Antoine Sforza (Nicolas Cazalé) lives in the city and hasn’t spoken to his family in ten years when he learns his father has suffered a stroke. He returns to his home village and agrees to help his mother run the family grocery while his father recovers. (There is another son who owns a hair salon and is unable to assist.) He brings a neighbor from the city with him: Claire (Clotilde Hesme), a single woman trying to resume her university studies after the breakup of her marriage; Antoine passes her some of his grocery earnings to help. Antoine’s mother is a bit surprised when he and Claire occupy separate bedrooms.

Antoine takes the job of driving the company van around, selling groceries to rural customers. He starts off badly because he resents being back in this village and, well, he’s a jerk. He makes no effort to develop rapport with his customers, who already have a connection to his father. Slowly, with Claire’s encouragement, he improves his people skills, but relationships with family members are strained.

The grocery customers remind one of the clients of James Herriot–rural, set in their ways, quirky–but with the eccentricities dialed back a notch or two. One customer, Lucienne (Liliane Rovère), holds a longstanding grudge against Antoine.

The story is nicely paced, with nothing remaining static for too long. Little dramas ebb and flow among the family members, Claire, and Lucienne. One can imagine a comfortable English-language remake (with Keira Knightley as Claire and Shirley MacLaine as Lucienne) with very few changes to the story. Until then, the French original makes a good entertainment.

The Grocer’s Son (reviews)
Directed by Eric Guirado
Written by Eric Guirado and Florence Vignon
Language: French
Running time: 95 minutes
DVD release date: December 2, 2008

Low-Scoring Game

Buzzard is an acidic character study of Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge), whose life’s ambition is to underachieve. Marty does as little work as possible as a young, low-paid temp at a bank; he pulls in a few extra dollars with petty scams–stealing office supplies, filing bogus food complaints, and the like. He also hangs out with a co-worker, Derek (writer/director Joel Potrykus), to whom he reveals his one passion: a game controller glove, fitted out with a blade on every digit, Freddy Krueger-like. But when a slightly more ambitious scheme goes awry, the buzzard (or as I prefer to see him, thieving magpie) becomes a hunted bird. Marty goes on the lam.

Burge’s long expressive face, generally showing anxiety hiding behind indifference, almost makes the movie worthwhile by itself. The latter part of the film drags a little. An extended spaghetti-eating scene feels like an out-of-place stunt, but it gets a pass because it entertains.

Overall a good film; I look forward to the next project from Potrykus.

Buzzard (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Joel Potrykus
Running time: 97 minutes
DVD release date: September 15, 2015

Etudes for Camera

Leviathan and Manakamana are experimental documentaries coming out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. Both involve fixed (or mostly fixed) cameras, recording a particular environment without narration. Each consists of a series of long takes, unfolding like an album of songs.

Leviathan uses small waterproof GoPro cameras to document the activity of a commercial fishing vessel in the North Atlantic. Each segment of the film shows some aspect of the operation: travel to the fishing waters, dragging the net (using underwater cameras), emptying the nets into the hold, sorting through the catch, butchering the fish, and so on. Lighting is not ideal; some shots give only a vague idea of what’s going on. Other moments are captured with perfect clarity; some viewers will be turned off by the amount of fish gore and the indifference to dying fish. It can be rough poetry.

Manakamana is a Hindu temple in the mountains of Nepal. One way of reaching it is via a 10-minute, 2-mile cable car ride. The film documents, on 16mm film, a dozen or so such rides, to or from the temple. In each ride, the director and cinematographer are fixed, unseen, on one side of the car, and the subject or subjects sit on the other side. Some subjects sit stoically; others chatter away after getting used to the camera’s presence. A few of the subjects are tourists, but most are Nepali Hindus. The segments play off one another–I am reminded of the careful way that jokes are sequenced in David Letterman’s top ten lists–building to a nice climax and relaxing into a thoughful coda.

Both films are diverting, but I found the Nepali setting to be more entertaining, because people.

Leviathan (reviews)
Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel
Running time: 88 minutes
DVD release date: October 22, 2013

Manakamana (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez
Languages: Nepali and one or two others
Running time: 118 minutes
DVD release date: September 3, 2014

Special Exhibit

Museum Hours doesn’t have much in the way of conventional plot. Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), an English-speaking woman from Montreal, borrows money to fly to Vienna, where she will watch over a comatose relative. She meets Johann (Bobby Sommer), a friendly guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and he keeps her company with conversation and a bit of local touring. Also, a guest lecturer (Ela Piplits) at the museum offers insights on Bruegel to a tour group.

Yet despite this lack of incident, the movie appeals. The developing friendship may be a bit unusual, but it feels entirely natural. In fact, the entire film (except for one brief puckish fantasy interlude) is realistic; these chats, this lecture could have actually taken place. One spends time with these people and takes in a little from one bit of conversation and quite a bit more from another. It’s like … well, you know.

Museum Hours (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Jem Cohen
Languages: English and German
Running time: 106 minutes
DVD release date: December 17, 2013


Small spoiler: A man talks about his fear of sharks; later he goes wading in the ocean. Depending on the movie, one of at least three things can happen: (a) He is attacked by a shark; (b) he imagines he is attacked by a shark; or (c) no shark, real or imagined, appears. Type (a) is a clever sort of movie; type (b) is psychological; and type (c)–well, type (c) could be kind of a random walk. (All can be good movies.) Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012 is type (c).

Jamie (Michael Cera) is a young American at a party in Chile. He sees a compatriot (Gaby Hoffmann) dancing freely; out of his natural disposition (perhaps a bit addled by cocaine), he feels compelled to warn her that she is making a fool of herself. She takes no offense, introducing herself as Crystal Fairy, and Jamie, now definitely drugged, invites her to join him on an auto trip he is taking the next day.

The trip, by Jamie and three Chilean brothers, is a search for San Pedro cactus, which can be cooked to yield a brew of a legendary hallucinogen. By the time Crystal Fairy meets up with them, Jamie has forgotten his invitation and is all for leaving her behind; the brothers demur.

Onward travel the five, with Jamie Type-Aing out over the prospective mescaline and the others relaxing and enjoying the journey. As the film’s poster suggests, they find the succulent they seek.

I have another small spoiler to contrast this film with what other filmmakers might imagine. The night of the party, Jamie and the brothers run into a pair of prostitutes on the street, and Jamie invites them to his apartment for a snack. In another story, the prostitutes would rob the foursome or otherwise complicate their lives; here, they stay for a brief time and then leave, with the only consequence that Jamie oversleeps the next morning. This is a film about enjoying the journey. I did.

Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012 (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Sebastián Silva
Language: English and quite a bit of subtitled Spanish
Running time: 98 minutes
DVD release date: November 19, 2013


Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief is Alex Gibney’s extremely professional exposé of the religion, cult, or philosophy (choose your term) everyone loves to gossip about. Gibney tells about the life and works of L. Ron Hubbard, who adapted many ideas developed in his own science fiction writing to found Scientology. Gibney also delves into the cosmology of the group, which involves a hierarchy of spiritual levels, and there are the thetans (sort of like disembodied souls), and some other characters and terms I’ve already forgotten.

To those outside the church, the steps taken to hold onto members–socially, psychologically, legally, and financially–are one of the most troubling aspects of the group; one woman claims to have signed a billion-year contract with the church. Much of the film is devoted to celebrities and higher-ups in the church who decided to leave, and the harrassment they encountered.

The whole film is well-organized and crisply presented, with no dull stretches. For those who’ve paid attention to news items about Scientology, there’s not much new; but it’s all nicely summed up.

Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Alex Gibney, based on a book by Lawrence Wright
Running time: 119 minutes
DVD release date: October 6, 2015