Shadows @ Film FestsShadows: Arthouse Films ’03

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last update 5.Jul.03

back to the top COMANDANTE
castro and stone
dir-scr Oliver Stone
with Fidel Castro, Oliver Stone, Juanita Vera
release US Jan.03 Sundance; UK 3.Oct.03 • HBO 03/Spain 1h39 2˝ out of 5 stars
In February 2002 filmmaker Oliver Stone spent three days with Fidel Castro. From some 30 hours of tape he assembled this captivating documentary, an intimate portrait of the Cuban leader. Of course, this being Stone, it's also hugely slanted ... especially when we see Castro get away unchallenged with evasive and patently false answers to questions about such touchy issues as his approach to racism, torture, sexuality and drugs. But Castro emerges as a charming character--engaging, sincere and very intelligent. And a real politician with an expertise in the art of spin.
Stone includes a lot of archival footage as well, opening with a mock newsreel about the 1959 revolution that overthrew the Batista regime. Political conflicts form a large part of the film, as Castro reminisces about Kennedy, Khrushchev, Nixon, Gorbachev, Reagan and Bush II with a disarming openness. He also talks quite movingly about Che Guevara; and Stone can't resist including lots of footage of the freedom fighter and cultural icon, plus a few too many clips of Eva Peron (accompanied by the swelling strains of Don't Cry for Me Argentina)!
And while it's fascinating to get Castro's perspective on things like the Bay of Pigs invasion, the missile crisis, US intervention in Latin America and the Cold War, we can't help but feel that Stone is bending this documentary for his own personal interest. Castro is a bit too wonderful--art aficionado, passionate lover, international hero (sending troops to help Angola), improving the life of his dearly beloved populace. Yes, he also talks about regrets--Castro comes across as very realistic and self-aware. He also understands the situation in the USA much more sharply than we'd expect, astutely seeing how the American public are oblivious to the truth, accepting the lies of their government in the name of national (or now "homeland") security. This would all have a much stronger punch if it weren't for Stone's relentless one-sided editing. But at least the point is made. [PG themes] 18.Jun.03
back to the top DRAGONFLIES [Řyenstikker]
bonnevie and persbrandt
dir Marius Holst; scr Nikolaj Frobenius
with Maria Bonnevie, Kim Bodnia, Mikael Persbrandt, Tord Peterson, Thomas Skarpjordet, Willy Karlsson, Tintin Anderzon, Shanti Roney, Anastassios Soulis, Tida Wrange
release Norway Sep.01; UK 4.Jul.03 • 01/Norway 1h41 3˝ out of 5 stars
This creepy Norwegian thriller has a lot in common with the French film Harry He's Here to Help, but without the black comic vibe. It's set on a remote farm, where the middle-aged Eddie (Bodnia) lives with his young wife Maria (Bonnevie). They obviously are trying to put space between them and the world, and are enjoying their idyllic isolation. Then Eddie runs into his old friend Kullmann (Persbrandt), who not only dredges up Eddie's past but threatens the careful balance Eddie and Maria have. Kullmann wants Eddie to help resolve an old score. And he seems willing to do just about anything to get Eddie to help.
This is very clever filmmaking, quietly insinuating with lush rural landscapes and strongly gurgling emotions (not sure what the title means!). As Eddie and Maria are jolted out of their peaceful existence, the film takes on a frighteningly horrific feel; everyone is in jeopardy, from Eddie and Maria to the neighbour farmer (Peterson), a local mute boy and even (especially?) Maria's unborn child. As Kullmann begins to show his colours, we become less sure of what he's done in the past ... and what he's capable of doing now. Twists and turns keep us morbidly glued to the screen, while subtle references to their past life make us wonder what on earth happened five years earlier. All while the film maintains its cool, almost freakishly calm exterior. This is not an action film by any means! But it's deeply unsettling, simply because we see how relationships can come undone in such an unsuspected and shattering way. And also how they can survive an awful lot more than we think they can. [15 themes, language, nudity, grisliness] 23.Jun.03
dir Sophie Fiennes
with Noel Jones, Marvinetta Clay, Sherry Breaux, Carolyn Johnson-White, Jonathan T Grier, Alonzo Atkins, Masa Kohama
release release UK 4 Jul.03 • 02/UK 1h39 3 out of 5 stars
This unusually poetic documentary centres on the Greater Bethany Community Church (now called the City of Refuge) in South Central Los Angeles. British filmmaker Fiennes (sister of Ralph, Joseph and Martha) was captivated by the way this church reflects and builds up its neighbourhood ... and how it draws some 10,000 regular churchgoers! So she headed there with a camera crew and quite clearly came under the spell of the pastor, Noel Jones, a seriously powerful preacher who uses a thoughtful, logical approach to the gospel that not only touches peoples' hearts, but is relevant to their day-to-day life in the roughest part of L.A.
The film features no narration and no straight-to-camera interviews. It merely tracks life in the community in parallel with the life of the church. We see several people chatting off-handedly as they go about their everyday business, talking about what life is like both in the church and on the streets ... and how the church has changed things. And we see a lot of Bishop Jones' preaching, all of which is echoed in what happens outside around the church. Jones is a remarkably gripping preacher--charismatic, iconic and intense (he's diva Grace Jones' sister, so this isn't a huge surprise!). As one guy observes, "This man is dynamite!" Meanwhile, Fiennes just sets about capturing the rhythms of life in South Central, using extended scenes of live musical performance and imagery of the houses from both street-level and from a God's-eye view above. These are real lives, and Fiennes' film is energetic, visceral and a beautifully edited depiction of inner-city life juxtaposed with spiritual practicality. But be warned: This is an artful portrait, not really a documentary! [15 themes, language] 23.Jun.03
back to the top SMALL CUTS [Petites Coupures]
devos and sagnier
dir-scr Pascal Bonitzer
with Daniel Auteuil, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ludivine Sagnier, Jean Yanne, Emmanuelle Devos, Pascale Bussieres, Catherine Mouchet, Hanns Zischler, Jeremie Lippmann, Alain Libolt, Aladin Reibel, Dinara Droukarova
release France 12.Feb.03; UK 29.Aug.03 • Rezo 03/France 1h35 3˝ out of 5 stars
With a terrific cast and a perceptive, entertaining script, this drama grabs hold and never lets go. Bruno (Auteuil) is not doing very well at the moment, but it's his own fault. His wife (Devos) and young mistress (Sagnier) have just had a chance encounter on the street, prompting his wife to leave and his mistress to confess her undying love. Bruno doesn't want either of these things. He heads to the country to visit his Communist uncle Gerard (Yanne), who sends him on an errand that strands him at the home of Verehker (Zischler), Gerard's rival for his wife's (Mouchet) affections. While Verekher's stepdaughter (Scott Thomas) takes an interest in Bruno, who'll basically settle for anyone at the moment.
Yes, the plot is pure French farce, but it's played dead straight, more like a thriller or tragedy. And the result is both insightful and involving. The cast is spot-on; Auteuil holds the film together with an engaging performance as a man who's beaten, cut, bruised, spat upon and worse ... yet refuses to give up hope. And the ladies are fantastic, from Sagnier's love-struck woman-child to Mouchet's determined middle-aged artist. Scott Thomas is particularly good in a role that feels like a Hitchcock blonde--both charming and tortured, fragile and dangerous. Even though Bonitzer directs the film very straightforwardly, his screenplay is layered with tension and irony as it traces chance encounters and convoluted relational chaos that are both hilariously funny and surprisingly moving. And the plot itself playfully circles around on itself, right up to the clever final scene. It's a typically talky French film--these people never shut up! But it beautifully captures our deep desperation for love and connection ... and how small comments and actions can cut to the quick. [15 adult themes, language] 25.Jun.03
harper sings with babbitt, willis et al
dir Paul Justman; scr Walter Dallas, Ntozake Shange
with Pistol Allen, Jack Ashford, Bob Babbitt, Johnny Griffith, Joe Hunter, Uriel Jones, Joe Messina, Eddie Willis, Joan Osborne, Chaka Khan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Ben Harper
release US 15.Nov.02; UK 25.Jul.03 • 02/US 1h48 3˝ out of 5 stars
Shining light into forgotten dark corner of musical history, this documentary is essential for fans of the Motown sound. We're talking about the Funk Brothers, the session musicians who played on virtually every Motown hit. These Detroit jazz artists are responsible for the distinctive sounds, the genius musical hooks and the deep infusion of jazz, blues and funk running through these classic tracks, each of which makes most of today's pop music sound tinny, unimaginative and deeply uncool! The Funk Brothers are responsible for more hit singles than the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones combined.
The material is the thing, catching interviews with these artists as they reminisce about life at Hitsville USA, working with artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves and the Supremes (though virtually no mention of Diana Ross). This is intercut with a Funk Brothers reunion, where they gathered together to jam with contemporary vocalists like Osborne, Khan and others. Strangely, there's no mention of the songwriters themselves (certainly they deserve some credit too!), but it is quite clear that these musicians are responsible for crafting the distinctive and magical vibe on all of these hits.
The documentary itself is over-edited--with no discernible structure, strange bits of narration by Andre Braugher and a few unnecessary dramatic recreations (better to just show the faces of these people telling the stories!). But the material is exceptional, and the dazzling music sucks us in, clearly showing us how every instrument was vital to the final piece, and cleverly explaining how some of the signature tunes (like What's Going On and My Girl) were constructed as they went along. And most importantly, it vividly shows us what a fully integrated band the Funk Brothers were--close friends working off each other brilliantly and blending together unforgettably. [PG language, some themes] 4.Jul.03
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© 2003 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall