September 23, 2016
Memory is a funny thing, it ebbs and flows with one’s mood and circumstances and so does perspective. In Max Rose, we meet a recent widower (played by Jerry Lewis), who finds reason to believe that his wife of 65 years, Eva (Claire Bloom) was in love with another man. He declares at her funeral that the marriage “was a lie.” Max, who is already a cantankerous old man, becomes even more recalcitrant after his loss and engaging in a revisionist journey wherein he lets his own demons pollute his mind. Lewis, in his first feature role in more than 20 years, does well in presenting the depression and anger that Max suffers, and it is perhaps the most redeeming quality of the film because something else is still missing.
Our earth is a delicate, sensitive, living, breathing organism that needs the care and attention we have not given it. Taking it for granted and wishing to control nature have been the markers of modern life. However, ancestral knowledge always recognized the importance of maintenance of that ecosystem that supports our life. In Seed: The Untold Story, Directors Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz take us back to rethink that important relationship of communing with the earth that feeds us.
March 19, 2015
Wild Tales, which was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, is a series of six stories that explores themes of revenge through dark humor. Director Damián Szifrón takes an unflinching look at the “double moral” that pervades in Argentina — and much of Latin America, for that matter. The dark comedy explores human behavior when pushed to its limit and has a critical take of the current version of social relations in Argentina. The film’s characters all seem plagued by a deep sense of injustice, which pushes them to the edge.
The first story, “Pasternak” focuses on injustice at the individual level. A runway model Isabel (María Marull) checks into a flight and strikes a conversation with music critic Salgado (Dario Grandinetti). The conversation quickly reveals they have a common acquaintance that they both have wronged — she cheated on him and he wrote a life-changing negative review. Soon, more people on the plane find they are part of the coincidence. The shocking opening story is short and to the point, awakening the audience to a different kind of world, one with blurred social boundaries and a rather twisted sense of humor.
“The Rats” is the second story, featuring a couple of female leads — proof that outrage and overheated reactions do not depend on testosterone alone. A waitress at a roadside small restaurant, Moza (Julieta Zylberberg), sees a man (Cesar Bordon) from her past walk into the restaurant. His complete disrespect for the server will have you rooting for her and the cook (Rita Cortese), who suggests a macabre plan of action. The next story is a personal favorite, “Road to Hell” where road rage and class disputes merge into an epic battle between the haves and have nots. The lengthier of these stories is “Bombita” where Simón (Ricardo Darín), a civil engineer who demolishes buildings for a living, takes a moral stand against the transit bureaucracy in Buenos Aires. This story will also have you questioning what is just and what is not and how those spheres overlap with what is legal and socially acceptable.
The last two stories “The Deal” and “Til Death Do Us Part” present a scathing portrayal of the upper echelon. In both, Szifrón invites the audience to judge the paradoxical circumstances that push characters to the brink and makes them act out in extreme ways. The laughs come from Schadenfreude, but in the despair of these characters you will also find a moment to question whether social inequality serves any social purpose worth preserving — for both ends of the spectrum. For instance, in “The Deal” a rich father (Oscar Martínez) who is willing to do anything to save his son from going to jail, ends up being blackmailed by his lawyer, a long-time employee and even a state prosecutor. The twist in “The Deal” will have you second-guessing who are the winners and losers.
In the closing story, “Til Death Do Us Part” well-to-do bride Romina (Érica Rivas) finds out that her newly minted husband Ariel (Diego Gentile) was unfaithful with one of the more attractive wedding guests. The discovery sends her on a rampage that blows up the entire wedding and will have you swept up for the complicated ride of love and jealousy. Szifrón’s storytelling is effective, with each piece cutting to the bone. The stories are short enough to keep even those with short attention spans entertained. Szifrón has a knack for spotting interesting stories to tell that deliver a punch, even if verging on the blunt side.
The score, courtesy of Gustavo Santaolalla, is one that heightens both the tension and humor. Take, for instance, the opening story. When the twist is revealed, a slinky number reminiscent of a western soundtrack will get you excited for what’s to come. The film is a co-production that includes El Deseo Production Company, the outfit headed by Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar, so it should be no surprise these stories are seeming tragedies that could have been plucked from the headlines and imbued with a dark, even playful sense of humor.
At its core, Wild Tales deals with the infuriating consequences of lived social inequality at all levels. An uncompromising look at the effects of corruption in government, personal and familial relationships, this movie echoes a disgruntled majority that does not stand for abuse of authority, either state-sanctioned through bureaucratic apparatuses or via economic inequality. It will also echo with international audiences because it presents universal situations that most will find themselves relating with.
Wild Tales runs 122 minutes long, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is rated R (some violent revenge throughout and a bit of sexuality). It opens in South Florida on March 20th at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, O Cinema Miami Beach, Regal South Beach, and Regal Shadowood. For screenings around the country click here. Wild Tales was the opening night film at Miami Dade College’s 32nd Miami International Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics provided a DVD screener last year for awards consideration.
Screening Update: Wild Tales finally comes to the Broward-based indie art house, Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale on May 1. Here’s ticket information.
While many Israeli film exports are straightforward or dramatic movies, Zero Motivation offers a breath of fresh air with a funny yet critical look at the role of women in the military. In a series of stories featuring women serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the film weaves different vignettes through an episodic narrative that at times is pure hilarity and at others shifts to insightful criticism with dark undertones. The film received an award from the 13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival for Best Narrative Feature and the Nora Ephron Prize, given to a female writer or director with a distinctive voice. Zero Motivation is the debut feature film from writer-director Talya Lavie who served in the IDF as a secretary on a base.
In Zero Motivation, Lavie uses a critical inward-looking gaze at her own homeland with a focus on one of the strongest institutions of Israel: its military. Often touted as an achievement in gender equality, Lavie’s portrayal of the IDF is far from the international perception of the Israeli military as a model for gender equality. The machine, as presented by Lavie’s lens, is filled with the usual patriarchal practices you would expect in that setting: harassment, a lack of representation at the top and almost no engagement in combat. The film presents a group of women serving in the IDF — all of them quite different but all women — relegated to a highly bureaucratic human resources office characterized by a typical gendered division of labor. Not only does the office concern itself with having paper backups of leaves by soldiers, it also shreds papers and serves coffee and drinks to other officers.
Early in the film we meet Daffi (Nelly Tagar), a young and naïve soldier who is also the “Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of Paper and Shredding.” Her storyline involves her quest to be transferred to a Tel Aviv station. In Daffi’s mind, the mindless paper tasks would be the same at any station, but at least Tel Aviv offers the glamour of the big city. Daffi’s good friend Zohar (Dana Ivgy) is focused on even smaller goals, her one quest at the office is to beat a Minesweeper record on the office’s outdated computer. Zohar’s other main priority is to lose her virginity, which is one of the standout chapters of the film. Zohar finds a soldier who seems interested, only to quickly learn that even for the seemingly polite young man, being a soldier means being entitled over the women around him. These are well-drawn characters that speak to the overall disconnectedness between the institution and its female population.
With her comic storytelling, Lavie skillfully reveals the contradictions in the system of mandatory conscription in the IDF for women, while the status of women within the organization remains systematically constrained. On the one hand, including women in the IDF is an important step towards equality, but the governance of the organization has relegated women to secretaries far removed from the realities of combat. In a poignant and clever montage, two of the characters walk around the station while in the background another female soldier posts reminders of all the historic military engagements of the IDF and their significance. The message and design of these posters is quite institutional and shows the distance between that reality and the contained environment in the military stations.
We have no clear sense of why each of the characters made it to service but all have hopes and dreams that, however small or funny it might seem to the audience, are upended via their military service. Even the one woman in this institution who holds genuine aspirations to grow within the IDF fumbles her chances. Rama (Shani Klein), the female officer in charge of this group of misfits, cannot seem to access the “good old boys network,” as her group of slackers sabotage her in one instance after another.
All the stories in Zero Motivation speak to the uncomfortable relationship between Israel’s Western aspirations and its embedded traditional structure. While the film is critical with an undercurrent of dark humor, it does not settle any of the issues it raises. It will certainly be the opening for many conversations that will be plagued with more questions than answers.
Zero Motivation runs 100 minutes, is in Hebrew with English Subtitles and is unrated (there’s cursing, violence, nudity and sexual situations). The film will premiere in Miami at the Miami Jewish Film Festival where I have been asked to introduce it on Sunday, January 25 at 6 p.m. at O Cinema Miami Shores. It is being distributed by Zeitgesit Films to theaters and has begun a theaterical run that continues expanding. For other screening dates and times around the country visit the film’s official website here.
Update: Zero Motivation opens for a brief three-day run at the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus on Friday, Feb. 13.
Snowpiercer is an enthralling, fast-moving sci-fi action film about a post-apocalyptic world where the few survivors of a frozen planet earth are the occupants of a train. The film starts off in 2031, a failed attempt at curbing rampant global warming is depicted by distant rockets streaking across clear blue skies, the voice of an unseen news anchor providing the background and an ominous symphonic score. Seventeen years later, all that is left of humanity are those who have boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that loops the globe once a year, without stopping thanks to a supposedly brilliant breakthrough in engineering called “the eternal engine.”
The entirety of the film’s action takes place within the train, a long, narrow series of cars, defined by a hellish class system, that gives off a feeling of oppressive, almost claustrophobic confinement, on more than one level. The action starts at the back of the train, where we meet Curtis,(Chris Evans) the reluctant hero with side-kick Edgar (Jamie Bell) as they strategize their escape from the back wagon. Under the counsel of wise elder Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis and Edgar plot to take over the train and undo 17 years of injustice. The mammoth task soon seems insurmountable as we meet an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton playing Mason, the enforcer of control, keeper of the order and representative of Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s inventor/conductor and its de facto ruler, whose sole concern is balance and order inside the moving train. Serving as spokesperson for Wilford, Mason talks at people in the back of the train— and therefore at the bottom of the social ladder— in a forceful tone, reminding them constantly to “keep their place.”
The rule-of-law inside the train, constantly moving at high speeds and bursting through errant snow drifts, makes use of not only heavy force but also information control. Mason is the best example of this mind control, as she exacerbates every statement with a heavy assertion of “… and so it is” with a ritualistic hand gesture. Beyond coercion and the train itself, power also emanates from the hegemonic Wilford through information and thought control. As Curtis and company move up towards the front of the train, they encounter an elementary school-level class of children in session. There, a teacher (Alison Pill) indoctrinates children on the life and many feats of their train conductor Wilford, and the laughable idea that things might be different by setting foot outside the train.
The visual narrative of Snowpiercer is clearly inspired by graphic novels. The stunning quality of the fast-moving shots in many of the fight scenes feels like an extraordinary page-turner. There is an extended scene once the revolutionaries reach the “water” wagon. Here, the establishment gains the upper hand as the train enters a tunnel and lights go off. The frames, and the action within them, move so fast you’re almost afraid of blinking.
Besides these fast scenes, there are some serene moments that focus on the emotional state of its characters, a prime example is when one of the windows of the train breaks and a single snowflake drifts into the scene stopping door-cracking expert Kang-ho Song (Namgoong Minsoo) in his tracks. It is no surprise then, that South Korean director Joon-Ho Bong has said he was inspired by the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. The aesthetics will please sci-fan fans as much as art house cinephiles. While the film is dark and crowded in the beginning, as our heroes move up to the front of the train they encounter light and what privilege looks like — a lot better in terms of creature comforts but also increasingly more bizarre with every door that they open.
Lest you think Snowpiercer is just another sci-fi, good-time film, there is an enduring quality to it. Its underlying environmental message points to the hubris of human control of its environment. Once you have living, breathing organisms, an ecosystem soon follows. Control of the environment necessarily goes together with coercion and in extreme cases — such as the self-contained train— there is also a political system that is hierarchical, the mantra of Wilford: “Everything in its place.” People, animals, everything is ordained. A rigid class system was developed and enforced via the compartments in the train, which inevitably led to authoritarianism.
The articulation of injustice done to humans and the environment is not subtle but is far more thoughtful than many of the action flicks produced by Hollywood every summer. Director Joon-ho Bong’s depiction of the class system and its ties to political and environmental factors is reminiscent of Robert Reich’s critique of the current American system of inequality. Indeed, this film redeems the best qualities of sci-fi: the ability of entertaining while depicting a satiric, exaggerated picture of the ills of the current times.
Snowpiercer runs 126 minutes and is rated R (expect some disturbing scenes of violence). It is playing exclusively in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which is hosting a retrospective of Joon-ho Bong’s films throughout the month of July (see their calendar for details). For nationwide screening information visit the film’s official website (that’s a hot link).