Film Reviews

Verité Casts Spotlight on Iraqi Struggles [Documentary Review]

Published 2007

Iraq in Fragments is touching and revealing as it illuminates life conditions of a country torn-apart by what people are considering more and more to be a needless war. The verité style documentary artistically condenses 300 hours of filming on location in Iraq into a sentimental portrait painted with the most striking of cinematography.

Jame’s Longley’s HBO documentary features no scripted narration as it explores the lives of ordinary Iraqi civilians. Separated into three sections, the documentary features eloquent vignettes taken from the lives of 11-year-old Mohammed Haithem, hiite political/religious movement of Moqtada and a family of Iraqi Kurds. Each sequence depicts these people’s thoughts, beliefs and aspirations, not to mention their concerns, which all tie together to personally illustrate the larger issues plaguing Iraq today.

The documentary is simultaneously hard to watch and hard to look away from. The severed streets and musky buildings of a devastated Baghdad are among the first images of the film’s ‘fragmented’ scenery. A collage of poverty, pain and injustice; this film succeeds in harnessing every aspect of human compassion. Longley’s documentary captures the experience of Iraq’a children with the young, tousled Mohammed Haithem, age 11. With a missing father and domineering employer.

Part One follows Haithem, a child auto mechanic, in the mixed Sheik Omar neighborhood in the heart of old Baghdad. With his father missing, Mohammed idolizes his domineering boss, working feverishly for approval and affection.

Several years behind in school and waylaid by war’s intervention, he’s torn between education and apprenticeship. Through Mohammed’s eyes we see a growing disenchantment with the U.S.led occupation, as well as tensions between Shia and Sunni Iraqis. Shown in extreme close‐up, Mohammed’s Baghdad is a city caught between an idealized past, a dangerous present, and an uncertain future.

A Stark Portrayal of Loss - "Ive Loved You So Long" [Film Review]

Kristin Scott Thomas as Juliet (right)

"Il y a Longtemps Que Je T'aime" (2008) translated to "I’ve Loved You So Long," is a stunning, intimate portrait of loss, love and sacrifice. The french film, written and directed by Philippe Claudel, follows a woman, Juliet, as she tries to find her footing in society after spending fifteen years in prison for murder – of her six-year-old son.

Juliet is brought to life with a stellar performance by Kristin Scott Thomas ("The English Patient," "Four Weddings and a Funeral"). Scott Thomas embodies the inner-turmoil that defines her character by personifying the cold, stoic solitude of prison.

Given the taboo of her crime, one would assume it difficult to empathize with Juliet. As expected, she is shunned by prospective employers and disowned by her parents. Those who know Juliet served time, but don’t know her crime, are intrigued by her. Her niece and new friends who know nothing of her past find her beautiful and elusive. We see her in all of these lights.

From the opening scene, Juliet radiates goodness, raw beauty and a quiet knowing. With the film’s progression, it becomes more easily felt that this character is incapable of cold-blooded Filicide. Her sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein), with whom she lives upon her release, expels an air of forgiveness and sympathy for Juliet, and we eventually follow suit.

Juliet carries a palpable guilt within her, one which Léa attempts to liberate. However, Juliet gives off a sense of resentment towards her young sister. Perhaps it is Léa’s blossoming family, successful academic career or naivety that Juliet resents, though at moments it is hinted that Léa’s abandonment of Juliet during her incarceration is a source of tension. On a personal, subjective note, Juliet’s contempt towards Léa – as well as the world – may stem from a co-existence of shame and belief of innocence that go unrecognized by those aware of her crime.

One of the film’s strongest points is its ability to bait the audience towards a highly emotional and satisfying climax by keeping Juliet’s motivation for such a horrid murder elusive. Léa discovers Juliet’s reason for killing her child, confronts her, and is given a reason. A controversial reason, a thought-provoking reason. Simple, yet emotional thanks to a soul-wrenching performance by Scott Thomas. The film ends moments after we are brought to this strong climactic point, void of any sugary dénouement.

So, what are we left with?

I’ve Loved You awakens the unpleasant awareness that pure love, combined with tragic circumstance is, for lack of a better term, brutal. Things are not always as they seem. Silence is not indicative of guilt. Some inhumane actions are driven by humanity. And sometimes the starkest, most impenetrable of prison cells are wrapped around us by the willful, ruthless hand of fate.

 Almodóvar Explores Love, Female Struggle in 'Volver' [Film Review]

Penelope Cruz leads the cast of 'Volver'
From the opening scene, writer/director Pedro Almodóvar introduces his delicate style of mixing morbidity and vibrancy with chatter-box women polishing tombs of their departed loved ones. The filmmaker’s signature plasticity is nearly tangible in Volver, as it is in so many of his acclaimed works. Forget jewelry. In this quirky comedic drama even the scenery seems plastic. It’s so drenched in up beat charisma that even when it rains, it soars.
Vovler’s title, which translates to Coming Back in English, subscribes to the overwhelming desire of human beings to know, once again, those they’ve lost. The Spanish-made film, which is set in present day Spain (in both La Mancha and Madrid), was released in New York and Los Angeles theaters on Nov. 3, 2006 and was soon nominated for an Academy Award for Best Leading Actress. Although the film failed to grab the Oscar, it did earn 32 awards worldwide. The Spanish-born filmmaker is almost as acclaimed in the U.S. as he is in his birth-land. Particularly since winning an Academy Award in 2002 for the screenplay of Habla Con Ella (Talk to Her) Almodóvar has grown to be considered by many a darling of art house cinema. After receiving the award for Best Screenplay at the 2006 Cannes International Film Festival, Almodóvar said, “Volver is the story of family, a family of women.” He went on to say “I don’t have the impression of being the director of these tremendous actresses but rather a relative of the family.”
Much like his 1999 film Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother), Volver’s story involves elements of family, and a powerful matriarchal leading role. Almodóvar’s 1988 film Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) features Carmen Maura in the lead role, Pepe. Maura returns in Volver, as the role of Irene, a mother of two grown women. While Maura’s role in Volver is emblematic of a warm, yet strong mother, her daughter’s character, Raimunda, resembles that of Maura’s character in Mujeres. Similar less in circumstance — though both Raimunda and Mujeres’ Pepe encounter extreme situations of stress and action — Pepe’s florescent essence shines through in Raimunda’s high-heeled confidence. To this day, Almodóvar does little to hide his adoration for lively female characters.
Heaving cleavage a-blazin,’ Raimunda’s C-cups are filled by Penélope Cruz. Her acclaim in international cinema seems to be overshadowed by her few American works, which do the actress little justice. The Madrid-born 32-year-old packed the part of Raimunda with more presence than any of her roles in such American films as Vanilla Sky, Blow and Gothika, which placed her as the first Spanish actress to ever be nominated for Best Leading Actress at the Oscars.
In Volver, Cruz’s character is no lady, at some points vulgar, but she is painted with femininity, both maternal and hard-edged. Her Best Actress award at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival laid the way for little surprise at how well Cruz plays the colorful female role. The versatile Cruz seems to be a favorite of Almodóvar, as she’s appeared in his previous works Sobre and Carne Trébula (1997). A mother, sister, daughter and niece, Raimunda knows how to take care of business, and those around her. While expressive of emotion, and showing human fragility, Almodóvar’s Raimunda doesn’t lose control in dire situations. She maintains her cool, and does so with perfect liquid lined eyes and floral hike-up blouses (thanks to Costume Designer Sabine Daigeler). In this nearly all-female cast, other characters also excel at handling crises — they lend each other help, and don’t consider for a moment that any task is undoable.
Another distinguishing feature present in Almodóvar’s Volver is his characters lack of concern about any consequences that may arise from their drastic actions. This may be attributed to his success at stitching humor into a story that’s built on murder, death, abuse and illness. While the film is a kind of murder-mystery thriller, its plot mainly focuses on the light, comedic queries of the “living” characters, and their strong relationships with one another. This is embodied by lines like, “It smells of... farts, my mother’s farts,” (Raimunda) which sends the art-house audience into hoards of laughter. While the moments of humor add instances of lightheartedness to the film, they don’t take away from its ability to make eyes a little teary. Many moments, like those that deal with sexual abuse and cancer, beg for emotional responses from the audience.
One of the film’s main accomplishments is its ability to dangle questions over our brains, teasing with suspense and alluding to possible outcomes. Then, as though blossoming with resolution, answers fall to our feet with precisely the right timing, mere moments before too much confusion sets in.
A certain sentence haunts the movie, and contributes to the sometimes
ambiguous nature of the story: “Someday I’ll explain it all.” Throughout the film, characters assure each other of this. They play off of one another, promising an explanation that ends up partly, though never fully, delivered.
Volver is a film of delayed explanations, but also of high reaching climaxes. While there are enough twists to quench even the driest attention span, the keen observer is able to spot some visibly approaching plot points before their arrival. Despite any anticipation, these twists are brilliantly crafted, and do enough to give viewers the closure that the characters themselves crave on-screen.
Volver speaks to the towering endurance of personal anguish that haunts us all when bereft of explanation. It’s a film of confronting the pain of the past, and reconciling with demons that haunt our present. This colorfully written and buoyantly directed film exposes no doubt that Almodóvar’s work is as poignant and pervasive as ever.

'Last King of Scotland' a Graphic Portrayal of a Ruthless Ruler [Film Review]
Whitaker picked up an Oscar for his performance 

Director Kevin Macdonald’s Last King of Scotland is an engaging masterpiece. Powerful and at times disturbing, Last King offers a story of power, corruption and relentless brutality. Whitaker’s performance, which earned his nomination in this year’s Academy Awards as the Best Leading Actor, casts a brilliant shadow over the film’s various other deserving qualities.
The charmingly grainy cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle propels the viewer into the 1970s with hectic and bustling camera work. With on-location filming in Uganda, Africa Last King, thrives on the visual reality of the exploited nation. Mantle’s cinema graphic work in Last King won him a Best Technical Achievement award at the 2006 British Independent Film Awards. The on-screen sights are unfamiliar yet tantalizing to the vast majority of viewers — ethnic dances, missionary camps, military men with guns slung over their shoulder at every bus stop and street corner.
Unlike fellow Oscar contender and African based film, Blood Diamond, Last King doesn’t initially give the impression that it’ll be painted in blood. But in Uganda, naivety is short lived. Despite a handful of sickening images, the film succeeds at delivering action without the usual necessity of non-stop blood-shed. The little violence that is present does more than enough to satiate even the hardest shelled desensitization.
         And then there’s Whitaker.
While ego-obsessed characters have charmed the silver screen since the early days of cinema, it’s fair to say that few actors are capable of pulling it off. The Texas-born actor’s depiction of former the Ugandan president gives a fresh meaning to Megalomania.
Last King is a story of historic fiction centering on Nicholas Garrigan (played by James McAvoy) a young Scottish doctor who takes a job as Ugandan President Idi Amin’s personal physician shortly after his rise to political power. Idealism seems to be Garrigan’s initial flaw. Fresh out of med-school, and with the original intention to work in a Ugandan missionary, his youthful romanticism draws him to Amin’s magnetism like a polar opposite. The two become unlikely pals, and Garrigan is quickly seduced by the palace life. Women, luxury, foreign exoticism; Ugandan life seems lovely to the young doctor until gruesome truths of reality open his eyes to the world outside the palace walls.
No stranger to up’s and downs, most cinema goers are more than capable of smelling a “bad guy” minutes after the opening credits. But Whitaker does himself justice. The actor’s portrayal of the larger than life president initially seduces audiences with good humor and amiable personality quirks before the character’s horrid colors start to show. Garrigan’s admiration for Amin dissolves as the irking underbelly of power and corruption is exposed little by little; hence, persistent suspense.
Playing the role of missionary Sarah Merrit, a familiar yet improved Gillian Anderson (X-Files) did little to disappoint, and even less to impress. Kerry Washington’s role as Amin’s unfaithful wife, Kay, is played nicely, but has a “nothing exceptional” ring to it. The same can be said for McAvoy, whose leading role in Last King drew international recognition for the 28 year old Scot. Garrigan’s character is somewhere between likeable and heroic, but McAvoy’s performance is just likeable. The actor’s ambition seems a little over played, as does his cowering intimidation when in the presence of the overbearing dictator.
Obviously in the midst of an award typhoon, if the supporting cast seems par it’s not because they are mediocre actors (For her role, Washington was nominated for an Image award and a Black Reel award, and McAvoy won a BAFTA award for Best Supporting actor). It’s because Whitaker’s blazon performance makes the film. The actor engulfs the screen much like his character’s persona overwhelms a room. His buoyant presence transfixes with charisma just as a dictator should, which may explain his roughly twenty other nominations or wins, including; a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Drama, a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role, a Satellite Award, New York Film Critics Circle Award, and an L.A. Film Critics Association Award to name a few.
All in all Last King is worth much more than its theater ticket or DVD purchase price. Not only does this film address and expose issues of government corruption and politically enforced homicide still plaguing African nations today, but it does so with clout. A hammering leading performance by Whitaker, and the distanced yet unsettling circumstances in Last King are capable of leaving viewers’ lungs bereft of steady breath.

Allen Scores with “Match Point” [film review]

Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in "Match Point."
Woody Allen’s newest film is gaining critical acclaim as one of his best in years. No doubt Allen has stirred up something peculiar, even for him, but in doing so stumbled on yet another story of human complications that has left audiences contemplating the struggle between morality and destiny.

Perhaps it is Allen’s notorious reputation for delivering intelligent, existential humor through sex, infidelity and irony that brings viewers to the cinema, but in “Match Point” it is the unlikely twists and curious outcome that leaves them astonishingly satisfied.

The film begins as what you would, but really wouldn’t, expect from Woody Allen. We have a couple of couples, and the inevitable triangle of temptation set to a posh London backdrop. The chemistry between the characters obviously lacks the familiar awkwardness we’ve warmed up to in films like “Manhattan,” “Annie Hall,” “Mighty Aphrodite” and even “Anything Else,”

After Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a former tennis pro, meets a wealthy new friend, Tom (Matthew Goode), he starts to like Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), and really enjoys the ins of the family’s rich lifestyle. But after Chris meets Tom’s sexy fiancée Nola (played by Scarlett Johansson) he becomes infatuated with her. Infidelity soon finds its way into the story, and the ball bounces between each lover’s court as games of lust often do. Morality, selfishness, temptation and luck propel Chris’ life in a shaky new direction that culminates into a unique twist of intrigue.

The film is graced by impressive performances by Rhys-Meyers, Good and Mortimer, but Johansson delivers the most passionate act of all. Ah yes, Scarlett. No wonder her face suits perfectly the character she plays, a seductive, out-of-work actress who manages to captivate the sexual intrigue of almost every male character in the film, not to mention every man in the theater. Although she played her part well, the performance doesn’t compare to her 2003 role in “Lost in Translation.” Johansson is flawlessly beautiful in “Match Point.” At first, the captivating curves of her face, above all her lips, would have done just as well depicting the sensuality of Nola’s character without any words. But as time goes on, Nola’s aura transforms from aloof to a desperation that is trickled with distinct human grit.

Viewers might see similarities between “Match Point” and Allen’s 2004 film “Melinda and Melinda.” One being that (brace yourself) he doesn't act in it, which may contribute to another: it isn’t candidly funny. But beyond lacking the neurotic ramblings of an eternally middle-aged comedic genius, the film centers more firmly on a purpose. Not just an analysis of love; who’s right, who’s wrong, and the unanswerable question, “Well... (adjusts black rimmed, Coke-bottle glasses) why, really?” but more so takes a rather startling look at the magnitude that chance plays in life. The peculiar outcome in “Match Point,” along with the circumstances leading up to it, examines destiny as an ever present force hovering over our own menial choices.

Before “Melinda and Melinda” clearly confronted the question, “What is the essence of life, tragedy? Or comedy?” most of Allen’s earlier films insinuate that he’s swaying more towards comedy. Now we are left to contemplate a shift from humorous reality to one that is harshly tragic. “Match Point” makes it obvious now more than ever that Woody Allen has contributed a plethora to modern pseudo-philosophical thought.

The film earned four Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay

“Me and You and Everyone We Know” [Film Review]

John Hawkes as Richard Swersey.
First-time filmmaker Miranda July wrote and directed this independent dramatic comedy that focuses around people’s awkward attempts to make connections with one another in contemporary life. Isolation, loneliness and romance are elements in this 2005 film which are crafted into a perfectly peculiar depiction of real life.

July plays Christine Jesperson, an artist and Eldercab driver who uses her artistic projects as a way to escape from, and admit to, her trivial reality. Christine falls in love with Richard Swersey, a newly single shoe-salesman (played by John Hawkes). Despite an indefinable connection, John is distracted by his new living arrangement and outlook on life, and therefore is reluctant to embrace Christine’s companionship. John’s two young sons, Peter and Robby, adjust to the new dirty-floored apartment by engaging in sexual affairs on the internet.

The story cleverly connects people through the social networks that typically link people to each other (neighbors of someone who has sons that know the girls who seduce a co-worker of the man with the sons; that type of thing). But in doing so, July’s script distinguishes each character’s struggle for a deeper personal union.

Some of the most brilliantly placed characters are the ones least exposed to us. In the film, these characters correspond to the people we sort of know, but only circumstantially. The ones you see occasionally and once-in-a-while wonder what they do in their private time – the girl next door, a prospective employer, possibly an internet lover.

One such example is John’s co-worker Andrew (Brad William Henke), who reveals his lust for two neighborhood teenage girls, Heather and Rebecca. Andrew posts dirty messages on his living room window after the pair teases him with a seductive “girl-on-girl” kiss. But when the girls eventually decide to knock on his door for a little (how do the French call it? Ménage à trois?) action, Andrew leaps to the floor in fear and hides beneath the window until they leave.

Heather and Rebecca similarly reveal their innocence when they run like children from Andrew’s doorway after days of feeling sexually empowered by an adult interest in their jail-bait sexuality. The actions of this grown man, so similar to those of two school girls, illuminate the flaws of wanting what you typically shouldn’t have; a well-done motif in July’s script.

Each character in the film seeks togetherness with someone else. They yearn for a feeling of connected identity which they can hold onto and feel satisfied.

The film is something similar to the dark dramedy“Secretary,” Steven Shainberg’s 2002 indie-sensation about a woman who engages in a sadomasochistic relationship with her elusive boss. Despite two entirely different storylines, “Me and You” takes the same stark glance at the secret pleasures that get us through life’s mundane routines. Taken out-of-context, the characters’ actions are considered absurd and even taboo, but since the filmmaker eases us into their daily simplicities, we see those identities make them who they are, and what we are (human, and not completely sure how to act accordingly).

“Me and You” won several acclaimed awards last year. The Cannes Film Festival handed over the Prix Regards Jeune Award for Best Feature Film, along with its Young Critics Award for Best Feature. The film won two Independent Spirit Awards for Best Feature and Best First Screenplay. Among others are The Sundance Film Festival (Best Dramatic Film) for its “originality in vision,” The Stockholm Film Festival (Best Directional Debut), The San Francisco International Film Festival (Best Narrative Feature) and The Philadelphia Film Festival (Best First Time Director).