The Necessities of Life 3

The first hour was relentlessly depressing: Tiivii is told he has TB, is sent from his Arctic home to a big-city sanatorium, where no one speaks his language – and he makes no effort to learn French. Things perk up a bit when they locate an Inuit boy with TB who can translate, but the tugs on the heartstrings are too obviously plotted. Why anyone would want to make a movie on this subject, or spend 90 minutes in a TB sanatorium without communication beats me.
P.S. Hard to believe, as I discovered later, that this beat Amal, my favorite film of last year, for the Canadian “Oscar.”

The Country Teacher 7

Billed as Festival Director Roger Durling’s favorite, this Czech movie was beautifully and sensitively acted, but the simple story of a gay teacher’s coming to grips with his sexual preference undoubtedly appealed to the Durls more than me. (Why he didn’t rave about the somewhat similar Yngve surprised me.) Other than reflecting on how different cultures in different (modern) eras respond to homosexuality, I didn’t have many other thoughts as I left the theater.

The Man Who Loved Yngve -9

The unfortunate title aside – there was no “man” in the movie and it was about so much more than loving Yngve – there was nothing I would change in this Norwegian coming-of-age story, a study, much like Juno, of that age when teenage rebellion and angst run up against real-world consequences. There was the dorky friend, the sexy girlfriend, the divorced parents, the loner bandmate, and holding it all together was the redhead Carlje, trying to live with the conflicting emotions that were tearing him up inside. The story revolved around good rock music, a real plus, and the culture was just different enough, yet totally recognizable, to add flair to the familiar story.  Think Catcher in the Rye, Ebony Tower, The Graduate…I smiled from the opening scene to the end – a wonderful SBIFF experience.

Eye of the Leopard 3

Amazing film of a leopard in the wild does not, of itself, make a great movie. In fact, this was a pretty bad movie: anthropomorphism abounded and Jeremy Irons’s melodramatic narration didn’t help. But worst was the convoluted story – not very interesting to begin with, then told in flashbacks so long one forgot the point they were meant to illustrate. Ultimately, shots of leopards running up and down trees, without much context from the Okavango Delta or other wildlife, became rather boring.

The Kabuli Kid 4

I was less than enthralled throughout, partially because I was never comfortable with the premise: a troubled mother abandons her infant in the backseat of a taxi and the genial driver spends two days trying to return or find a home for the baby. Not that this couldn’t happen – although finding such a saintly and handsome driver isn’t likely – just that my mind resisted it. Nothing much happens: the movie seems content to give us an overview of modern Kabul, and the ending is neither dramatically satisfying nor realistic. And I couldn’t help but compare this to two much better films from last year, Amal and The Kite Runner.

Gomorrah – 8.5

At first I dismissed this as a Sicilian version of the Sopranos without plot, humor, recognizable characters or professional camerawork. By the end, though, I knew the people and their stories had coalesced into a bleak, violent and scary world of an Italian crime “family” that read more like a nature documentary in its realism than the fiction you wished it were. There was a subtle arc, as we started with the young boy delivering groceries, watched how he was inexorably drawn into the gang, and ended with the world of the bosses, which made the child’s play along the way, even with machine guns, seem just like that. A postscript spelled out the impact this criminal syndicate has on people around it: a 20% increase in cancer, for starters, in the areas where they dump toxic waste. This was not for the fainthearted, but it was remarkable moviemaking.

Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times

It was rather shocking to me to learn that the L.A. Times didn’t seriously  undertake to impartially cover the news until 1960, when 4th-generation

Otis Chandler became publisher. Until then, it openly touted the Chandlers’ business and political interests, “inventing L.A.” in the process. This documentary was highly polished but lacking in focus: the first half was devoted to the history of L.A.; the second to the story of the Times, and the family feuding that killed the dynasty. As a primer to the L.A. backstory, however, it was a boon to this newcomer.

Zift – 5

In marked contrast to Vacation – who would think the first two films I see at the Santa Barbara Film Festival would both take place inside prisons! – the Bulgarian esthetic is apparently raucous and messy. Or, you could say, loud and lewd. The story involves a petty criminal who wades through unbearable shit in jail and out while protecting a rare black diamond, only to be betrayed in the end. His Steven-Seagal-toughness elicits our admiration, although it doesn’t quite explain how he fights through iridium poisoning and numerous jolts and blows to the head. Perhaps if one were Bulgarian the references to the Communist takeover would make the film symbolically coherent. Perhaps it would also make the characters, the stories they tell, Moth’s name and the aphorisms about shit – “zift” – meaningful in a way that escaped me.

Vacation 7

An engrossing, oh-so-Japanese indirect reflection on the death penalty, told through the story of prison guard Toru Hirai, who volunteers to assist at the execution-by-hanging of prisoner Kaneda the day before his wedding. I was confused by the intercutting of his two worlds: the prison drama unfolded in orderly fashion, but the world outside proceeded at a different pace, jumping ahead of the “present” at a point I couldn’t discern, to a point I couldn’t detect. Still, there were effective touches: keeping us ignorant of the prisoner’s crime, so he remained an abstract concept, allowing us to focus, interestingly, on the guards, not the usual focus of a death-penalty discussion. A solitary ant, representing, I suppose, “life” in the Buddhist cosmology, reappeared on several occasions; and there were directorial touches, like the straphanger nooses on the train, and the parallel drawings of the child and Kaneda, that deepened the experience – and reminded one of how the Japanese esthetic concentrates on a solitary object.

The Reader 7

Here are some of my questions: If Hannah was not intellectually curious, why did she take so readily to Homer, Chekov and Mark Twain? If she was intellectually curious, why had she not taught herself to read, or asked someone to teach her, before she was 60? If she was a shy recluse, why did she pounce so readily on the kid, and keep pouncing? If she wasn’t a recluse, why did she have no friends in the world, especially among the guards she served with in the war? Where did Hannah and the kid find the time, in one summer, to read aloud so many books, have sex and a shower every day, do homework, work a full-time job and still escape the notice of his friends and family? How did the kid spend so much intimate time with her and not discover that she was illiterate? Then there are the questions not involving plot details, but more serious ones involving human motivation: what were Hannah’s feelings toward the kid? Why did she abruptly quit the relationship, her apartment and her job? Why did the kid, now a young law student, not save Hannah by telling the court that she was illiterate? Why, later in life, did he send her tape recordings of all the books they had read, and more? Why was he cold toward her when she was about to be released from prison? And finally, why did she hang herself? Taking on the larger issue the film obliquely raises, how culpable was Hannah for the death of the concentration-camp inmates?

            I have some answers to the last set of questions, but my wife has others, and it is precisely this thought-provoking nature that is the strength of The Reader. The need to search for explanations to some of the mysteries is, conversely, a weakness. Kate Winslet is compelling as the bottled-up Hannah, but without a bit more background it is hard to accept a character with so much contradiction: beautiful, erotic and brazen, yet friendless at home, on the job, in the war, in prison. Ralph Fiennes, on the other hand, floods the screen with a plethora of facial expressions in every five-second shot, needlessly underlining the oh-so-serious nature of the matters before us. By contrast, a better film like The Lives of Others seems to be inhabited by real people, not actors.