Sickle

Shape of the Moon, released a bit over a decade ago, depicts life in Jakarta and rural Java. The city is full of derelict shacks and general poverty. In the country, there is some sense of community, and … more poverty. Demonstrators in the city proclaim their support for the Muslim side in the world’s hotspots–Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Bands of religious zealots, dressed in white, search the neighborhood for violations of Islamic law.

The film spends some time with one extended Christian family, who get by by keeping a low profile … or converting. By the end, the Christians still dream of tolerance but accept the status quo.

Eye-opening.

Shape of the Moon (reviews)
Directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich
Awarded the Grand Jury Prize, World Cinema–Documentary, at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival
Language: Indonesian
Running time: 92 minutes
DVD release date: January 3, 2016

Body of Work

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present reviews the career of the groundbreaking performance artist, culminating in a three-month retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 2010. Her performances pieces often involve some physical contact with her person. In an early work, audience members were permitted to choose from a selection of objects and do to her as they chose. Another work involving her collaborator Ulay had the two of them repeatedly crashing their bodies into one another. The centerpiece of the MOMA retrospective had Abramović seated in a chair, facing another chair several feet away; one by one, audience members would seat themselves and interact silently with her.

This is a fine documentary about a forceful, charismatic figure in today’s art world.

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre
Awarded an Emmy for Outstanding Arts & Culture Programming, 2013
Running time: 105 minutes
DVD release date: October 16, 2012

Chan Is Hitting

Little Big Soldier is a nimble comedy/drama from Jackie Chan, set in China’s Warring States period. A great battle has ended with two survivors; one, a soldier (Chan), has gotten the drop on the other, a general (Leehorn Wang) from the other faction. The soldier proposes to take his prisoner to his home land, some distance away, and collect a ransom. The two embark on their journey, encountering various obstacles on the way…. This is the framework for a lot of pratfalls and clever, acrobatic fighting, interwoven with (who would have guessed) the development of a more-or-less friendly bond between captor and captive. Both sides of the story work.

Little Big Soldier (reviews)
Directed by Ding Sheng
Written by Jackie Chan
Language: Mandarin
Running time: 96 minutes
DVD release date: August 23, 2011

Lake District

Valley of Saints is one of those films that put a new world on display, in this case a community built on and around a lake in Kashmir. Business is slow at a floating hotel–the area is under occupation by the Indian military. The nephew of the hotel’s owner meets the sole guest, a young woman studying the lake’s ecosystem. He and his friend offer to help with her research; soon he is falling in love. But this little romance is just a lure to draw us into the region, and by the movie’s conclusion we have a sense of this beleaguered part of the world.

Okay, let me back up. The individual characters are also important; the filmmaker wants us to sympathize with them too, as well as the people of the overall district.

Accomplished.

Valley of Saints (reviews)
Directed and written by Musa Syeed
Received Audience Award, World Cinema–Dramatic, 2012 Sundance Film Festival
Language: Kashmiri
Running time: 81 minutes

Deep Dive

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is proud to wear its status as authorized documentary: It makes brilliant use of copious private documentation of Cobain’s life–home movies, journals, drawings, and recordings. It’s pretty clear where his demons came from: He was a precocious, hyperactive child, and sometimes the only weapon his father could find to manage him was humiliation. His parents split when he was young, and neither alone was able to cope with him for long. His upbringing was farmed out to other family members and acquaintances. A need to belong and a dread of humiliation haunted him for the rest of his life.

And on the film goes, showing Nirvana in obscurity and sudden ruinous success. Courtney Love (a key provider of the film’s source materials) appears and seems generally clearheaded and sympathetic.

A richly detailed biography.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (reviews)
Directed and written by Brett Morgen
Running time: 132 minutes
DVD release date: November 13, 2015

MS and Me

Jason DaSilva had already made several documentaries–features and short subjects–when he decided to turn the camera on himself: He wanted to document his worsening condition from multiple sclerosis. It was a difficult undertaking, but we are the richer for it.

When I Walk takes us from early in the disease’s onset, when DaSilva could walk with just an occasional spill, to the editing of the film itself–done with assistance, since DaSilva’s eyesight was failing and he had only limited use of his hands. The steady decline in his mobility is wrenching, but DaSilva accepts the condition without a lot of self-pity or other drama; it’s a story he’s going to tell, dammit, wherever it leads. And he does have strong support from his mother and his angelic girlfriend. For an MS story, this is almost a best case.

When I Walk (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Jason DaSilva
Written by Jason DaSilva and Alice Cook
Awarded an Emmy (edited to air as an episode of P.O.V.) for Outstanding Informational Programming–Long Form, 2015
Running time: 81 minutes
DVD release date: June 10, 2014

Neighbors in the Negev

Turn Left at the End of the World is a pleasant, mostly low-key comedy. In the 1960’s, a group of Jews from India are recruited to live in Israel. They are disappointed to find themselves sited far from any city in a border settlement, which they share with Moroccan immigrants. Initially, the reserved Indians and more freewheeling Moroccans don’t take to each other. The film tracks the developing relationship between the two communities as they face the stress of a labor strike and combine forces to field a team for cricket.

Various connections are made, some illicit, but the central friendship of the film is between the teenagers Sara (Liraz Charhi) and Nicole (Neta Garty). (An older Sara narrates the film.) Both performances are charming.

Turn Left at the End of the World (reviews)
Directed by Avi Nesher
Written by Avi Nesher, Sara Eden, and Ruby Porat Shoval
Languages: Hebrew, English, and French
Running time: 108 minutes
DVD release date: July 24, 2007

* * *

Son frère portrays two emotionally distant brothers who become closer when one of them falls sick with a blood disorder. Most of the film takes place in a hospital, in the healthy brother’s apartment, and on a beach in Brittany. The hospital scenes are quite effective in conveying the pain and helplessness of long-term illness. This involves a lot of medical procedures, shown in detail, which may cause some to flinch. Sigh: I am among the flinchers. If I liked the story a tiny bit more, I might forgive a pat, overconvenient ending. Ugh, that ending.

Bastards is another unpleasant film, with little to recommend it. A man defenestrates himself, and a young naked woman staggers in shock down a Paris street. This could be the start of a tasty noir thriller, but Claire Denis keeps comprehensibility at arm’s length, like a teacher who won’t let us forget we are mere students. Sex is served up in contrasting scenes of artful tittilation and soul-damaging raunch, demonstrating … ? Sorry, the lesson doesn’t penetrate.