Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Where Have All The Movies Gone?
A Shopping List for Cinephiles

April 2001

While planning my annual pilgrimage to the Cannes International Film Festival in May 2001, I researched the fate of many important movies screened at Cannes 2000-- a fine vintage year. Since last May a huge number of Cannes films have been bought, distributed and played in many countries. But almost a year later very few had made it to the USA. And these had minimal exposure, mostly as projections in a handful (at best) of festivals. A tiny number also had short runs in a few major metropolitan areas.

Here are several very good-to-"must see" films which sooner or later ought to be imported. And if they are already held by distributors they should come off the shelves and regale thousands of discriminating American viewers.

VATEL, French with a British director (Roland Joffe), is a complicated "historical" fabulation, set in 1671, in the reign of Louis XIV, The Sun King. Vatel was and remains a legend in France. He was a superstar master chef, whose inventive, succulent dishes were, literally, fit for a king and the nobility. Little else is known about the man, except that when something went a bit wrong during the preparation of a banquet, Vatel was so upset, felt so degraded, that he killed himself. Here he is played by Gerard Depardieu, Uma Thurman, and Tim Roth. The script was adapted by Tom Stoppard. The movie is lush, colorful, not great but among those historical reconstructions and elegant spectacles that the French can do so well.

Also French, UN AMI QUI VOUS VEUT DU BIEN (English title: "Harry is Here to Help You") is the second feature by Dominik Moll. A French couple having troubles with a summer house they are building, are visited by the man's hardly-remembered school chum. The visitor is wealthy super-friendly, and peculiar. He changes their modest lives into lives of luxury --and puzzlement. An original, clever movie, full of surprises, comical but with some dark undertones too.

BED AND ROSES comes from the big heart of Briton Ken Loach, a master of British neorealism whose political militancy, love of the working classes, and blending of fiction with documentary techniques has made him a much admired "auteur" ever since his first films Poor Cow (1968), Kes (1979) and Family Life, (1972). This latest movie, set and shot in Los Angeles, deals with Mexican workers pitted against their employers. My verdict is a solid B.

BLACKBOARDS, an Iranian film, is the second feature of Samira Makhmalbaf who became a prize-winning darling, first at Cannes, then in other festivals. for THE APPLE (1998). The daughter of a renowned Iranian director, she made THE APPLE when she was not even. 18. It is a fact-based recreation of a very low income family. They "star" in the movie as themselves. The mother is blind, the 65 year old father does not allow his two young daughters to go beyond the walled courtyard of their shabby house, for fear the world outside will corrupt and hurt them. A welfare worker eventually manages to liberate the kids. The film was released in ther USA in January 1999, but was hardly not shown in small markets.

In BLACKBOARDS, a group of schoolteachers displaced by bombings in Iranian Kurdistan, wander about with big blackboards strapped to their backs. They are searching for pupils. They meet kids trying to over the border, and old men who share that desire so as to die in their land of birth. Stark, moving film makes atmospheric use of rocky landscapes, rings true as a semi-documentary and as a human/political fable. Made with feeling but not "come-hither" sentimentality. Its maker is now all of 20. Iranian cinema is known in the West primarily for the much admired Abbas Kiarostami, but there are several other fine Iranian films by talented directors.

GUIZI LAI LE (Devils On The Doorstep) is the second film by renowned Chinese actor Juang Wen, who also wrote it and heads the cast. A remote village in a China decimated by both a civil war and the fighting against the Japanese, becomes the focus of soldiers from all sides and for villagers forced to guard a Japanese prisoner. An intelligent tragicomedy with many implications, notably the notion of collaborationism. Long (ca 3 hours) black & white film is very well filmed. It should be imported in the USA, where people can savor it without feeling the stress and fatigue that overdoses of movies induce at Cannes.

THE GOLDEN BOWL by James Ivory and his usual acolytes (producer Dismal Merchant, writer Ruth Jhabvala) adapted Henry James quite felicitously. The story revolves around the quartet of a rich father (Nick Nolte), his daughter Maggie (Kate Beckinsale), an impoverished Italian nobleman (Jeremy Northam), and the latter's mistress (Uma Thurman) who remains just that even after the aristocrat marries Maggie. Beautiful period film with much dialogue is also best enjoyed outside the hubbub of Cannes.

The Swedish FAITHLESS (154 minutes) by Liv Ullmann, about marriage and infidelity, has an Ingmar Bergman script that ought to interest specially all of the master's followers, because it is full of direct references, allusions, sly commentaries and even names from Bergman's own repertory.

FAST FOOD FAST WOMEN, a French-American production, written and directed by the usually solemn Israeli Amos Kollek. Sets the stage for non-rich Manhattanites of various occupations or idlenesses. Charming, not heavy, with romances and mix-ups.

THE WEDDING, Russian, by writer-director Pavel Loungin. His early 90s Taxi Blues and Luna Park were hilarious, with an edge. So is this movie. A beautiful model returns to her native village after a long absence ... and proposes to her childhood boyfriend. A comedy of outrageous twists and characters, yet also realistically reproducing unchanging life in Russia. The drinking is of monumental proportions. Works nicely as farce and social commentary.

TABOO. First movie in 14 years by the great Japanese Nagisa Oshima, is a curiosity taken from literary sources. Set in 1865, its theme is samurai and homosexuality. Oshima has a knack for the unusual, and here he even reverts to some silent film techniques, such as intertitles and spoken commentary.

SAINT-CYR, like the fest opener VATEL is set in the France of King Louis XIV. His mistress, Madame de Maintenon (Isabelle Huppert) creates Saint-Cyr as a school for 250 girls of noble but impoverished families. Ironic script combines color, history, social criticism.

CHUNHYANG (South Korea).Tale of eternal love during the 1200s. Told in traditional fashion: accompanied by a drummer, a man sings the story to the audience. Touching , and with beautiful sets, costumes, photography.

Only one Italian film representeg Italy at the festival--a fact that caused soul-searching or indignation in the Italian press, astonishment in other quarters, and, in my case, sadness. PREFERISCO IL RUMORE DEL MARE (I Prefer the Sound of the Sea) is by Italy's writer-director Mimmo Calopresti. At Cannes 1995 he presented the topnotch, polittical THE SECOND TIME. not a thriller but an unusual psychological drama. In 1998 he contributed a wonderfully original, offbeat, cleverly psychological romantic comedy, LA PAROLA AMORE ESISTE, literally The Word Love Does Exist--but given in English the title WORDS OF LOVE. Shown in the sidebar The Directors' Fortnight, it wa shockingly under-appreciated.. However, I am told that both those films were subsequently hits in other festivals and in European theaters. They are still unseen in the USA so far as I know. His latest may be just too deep and subtle for its own commercial good. A rich adolescent from industrialized Turin and a poor one from Calabria are thrown together, face the complexities of inter-relationships, similarities and differences, and so on. It is almost impossible to summarize or encapsulate Calopresti's richly sociological and psychological films, even though they have a clarity that makes them easy to follow. I give it the grade of A.

Also an A goes to Vietnam-born Tran Anh Hung, a resident and citizen of France where he had earlier reproduced Vietnam in the much praised and prize-winning THE SMELL OF GREEN PAPAYA. His latest, AT THE HEIGHT OF SUMMER, about three sisters and their secrets, was sensitively shot in Hanoi, is realistic, allusive, moving, with not a cliche or any cheap tricks in sight.

THE WAITING LIST, from Cuba, is a co-production of that country, Spain, France and Mexico). Its maker is Cuban author, screenwriter and director Juan Carlos Tabio. His previous movies, all comedies, were major hits internationally: PLAFF (the sound of an egg splattering) , the widely seen STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE, and GUANTANAMERA -- the last two co-directed with the late Tomas Guttierez Alea. All those works push the envelope far enough to make audiences outside Cuba wonder how the films get away with satires of conditions and life in Cuba.

Here we have a motley group of people thrown together. Not the usual assembly of, say, a dancer, an army man, a crook, a wealthy old fellow, a doctor, and so on. (I am making this up although I am thinking of movies like Grand Hotel, Stagecoach or Ship of Fools) Rather "motley" on a small scale, with ordinary people, and without any class, professional or social distinctions. (Remember, this is Cuba.) They are all stuck inside a shabby provincial station, as they wait for a long-distance bus. Some vehicles do show up, but invariably are too full to take on new passengers. Eventually the frustrated travelers resolve to repair a derelict, broken-down vehicle at the station. Interaction, complications, comedy, evolving relationships, humor and sentiment range from subtle to broad,. A great movie? No, but one that is charming, warm and easy to take.

FIRST OF THE NAME (France). Sabine Franel's first feature, a creative and set up documentary, deals with a Jewish family in Alsace over more than two centuries. Ms. Franel organizes a huge family reunion of people from all over, different from one another and mostly not acquainted with their relatives -- some of whom seem to be avoiding their Jewish roots. Interesting talk, dialogues, conversations plus documentary footage. Fascinating.

Sweden's SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, directed and written by Roy Andersson who had not made a feature film in 25 years but is well-known for his commercials. Says he: "this is an episodic slice-of-life pastiche of modern urban society." Humor (mostly black), irony, stylisation, odd connections or disconnections among many episodes make this a true original, a movie without ancestry or models. Extremely inventive, most interesting.

CAPITAES DE ABRIL (The April Captains), the first feature by major actress Maria de Medeiros, who also plays in the movie. She is best known in the USA for starring in Philip Kaufman's HENRY AND JUNE as Anais Nin, opposite Fred Ward and Uma Thurman as writer Henry Miller and his wife. Here Ms. de Medeiros recreates very convincingly "The Carnations Revolution" the "good" coup d'etat that brought democracy to Portugal in 1974. Uplifting, with credible personal stories, impressive reconstructions of the political and military events, all filmed where they actually took place.

DJOMEH (Iran) First film by Hassan Yektapanahf. A young Afghan works in an isolated dairy farm in Iran. He is a foreigner, but unlike some others, this doesn't bother him, He is anxious to learn and to assimilate, he falls in love with a girl. Their marriage needs, by tradition, a sort of sponsor. He turns out to be the sensitive, understanding owner of the farm. Beautifully realistic movie investigates solitude and companionship. Unpretentiously warm.

LES GLANEURS ET LA GLANEUSE (English title: The Gleaners and I) A great, creative documentary. Gleaning is the centuries-old tradition whereby (mostly) needy people pick fruit and vegetable remnants after a harvest. The "I" of the English title is peripatetic filmmaker Ages Varda -- as herself --who gleans information, stories, etc. from "real" gleaners. Varda is, of course, the major woman director of the French New Wave. The picture is touching yet humorous, clever, splendidly written and/or improvised. First rate.

ESTHER KAHN, made entirely in London and in English by maverick Frenchman Arnaud Desplechin, has great camera-work, period sets, and acting. From a novella by Arthur Symons. In the late 1800s, in the East End, Esther, a child of Jewish immigrants, labors in their sweatshop alongside her siblings. She is an unemotional cipher for all, but as she grows to womanhood she finds her real self by becoming a stage actress. Played by Summer Phoenix, the last of the Phoenix tribe to become a thespian. Ian Holm is second-billed. Film has no corn, false colorfuness or sentiment, no cliches. Masterful.

ABSCHIED (The Farewell) (Germany) Directed by Jan Schutte. Written by Klaus Pohl. One day in the life of the protean and hugely influential writer Bertolt Brecht. At his holiday villa they are preparing to return to Berlin by late afternnon. The other vacationers are his wife Helen Weigel, their teen daughter, his long ago mistress Ruth, his ex-mistress and now assistant Elfriede, current mistress Kathe, a young actress, political dissident Wolfgang Harich and his young wife Isot, another current mistress --with Wolfgang's blessing. No, it is not a French bedroom farce but a serious movie filled with discussions, reactions, antagonisms, alliances, politics, and other subjects and issues which held my undivided attention. Ominously, a young man from Stasi, the dreaded Stalinist police, shows up to take Harich back to Berlin, but Helen keeps this a secret from her husband... Shot in Poland by a master cinematographer, ABSCHIED plays like expanded Kammerspiel. Its hero-antihero is not especially simpatico, but whether revisionist or not, this is a strong, intriguing document. Three days after his return to Berlin, Brecht died of a stroke.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel