Birds of Passage (Pajaros de verano)


Birds in plume.

(2018) Crime Drama (The Orchard) Carmiña Martinez, Josė Acosta, Natalia Reyes, Jhon Narváez, Greider Meza, Josė Vincente Cote, Juan Bautista Martinez, Miguel Viera, Sergio Coen, Aslenis Márquez, Josė Naider, Yanker Diaz, Victor Montero, Joaquin Ramón, Jorge Lascarro, Germán Epieyu, Luisa Alfaro, Merija Uriana. Directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra

 

Some movies are great because of technical achievements. Others are great because their story has universal appeal. Others achieve greatness through a combination of those elements. Rarely, a film makes greatness because of an ineffable quality all its own.

In Northern Colombia, the Wayuu people have lived speaking their own language, with their own traditions and customs for thousands of years. They do not trust Spanish speaking Colombians whose culture is as alien to them as Japan’s might be; in fact, many Colombians are unfamiliar with the Wayuu.

At the beginning of the movie (which is divided into five cantos, or songs), Zaida (Reyes), the daughter of the clan matriarch Úrsula (C. Martinez), is celebrating her coming of age. Her position makes her quite a catch for the men of the clan. One, Rapayet (Acosta) is particularly eager to claim Zaida as his bride but Úrsula is less sanguine about the idea. She gives him a ridiculously high dowry of 30 goats, 20 cows and five precious necklaces. Rapayet, who is regarded with suspicion by the clan because he has had business dealings with non-Wayuu, is nonetheless determined to make Zaida his wife. He and his partner Moisės (Narváez) have been picking coffee beans and selling them but a chance encounter with American Peace Corps volunteers leads them to a more valuable cash crop – marijuana.

With gringo pilots set to deliver the goods to market and leaving them ridiculous amounts of cash, Rapayet prevails on fellow clan member Anibal (J.B. Martinez) to use part of his ranch to grow weed for him which they sell to the Americans at a massive profit. At first the arrangement works swimmingly and both Anibal and Rapayet become wealthy with the latter able to afford the dowry and wed Zaida much to the matriarch’s dismay. However, she eventually gets with the program when she sees the money and prestige her new son-in-law is bringing to the clan.

But things aren’t ducky for long. First, Moisės proves to be something of a loose cannon. Then, the son of Úrsula proves to be even worse, a disrespectful, entitled lout whose indiscretions threaten to bring the clan to a civil war. Rapayet is only able to watch helplessly as everything he loves – his family, his clan, his culture – slowly begin to circle the drain.

This is quite simply put a masterpiece of Latin American cinema. Gallego and Guerra – who directed the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent – have outdone even that movie with a film that is lyrical in content but with elements of a tragedy as well as a crime drama all rolled into one. While not at the level of The Godfather it is still a movie that is going to make a whole lot of impact on the genre.

The cinematography is breathtaking, from the lavish luxury of Rapayet’s hacienda, the desolation of the empty plain it sits on, the simple beauty of the village, the lavish costumes of the villagers and the beauty that is Colombia. It is a gorgeous movie to watch. There are moments and images that will stay with you for a very long time.

While the movie takes place between 1968 through 1980, the timelessness of the lives of the Wayuu really doesn’t give those of us who are urbanized a sense of period. That the story is so compelling also contributes to the timelessness of the movie – greed and pride often do lead to a fall and therein lies the tragedy. One ends up wondering if the drug importing hadn’t been introduced to the clan would they have ended up being happier? Certainly, more of them would have been left alive.

Clearly the filmmakers have a great abiding respect for the Wayuu culture and just as clearly much research was done into it. The co-directors are adept at telling their story and it never seems to go in the direction you think it’s going to with few exceptions. There is a bit of an element of morality play here but at the end of the day this is masterful film making that should be at the top of every film buff’s must-see list this year.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers clearly have a reverence and respect for native cultures. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The story is a compelling one. This film never goes in the direction that you think it’s going to.
REASONS TO AVOID: The violence can be brutal and graphic which may offend the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and profanity, brief nudity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The co-directors were married but divorced during the production of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: New Jack City
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Roll Red Roll

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story


There's nothing funny about The Graduate.

There’s nothing funny about The Graduate.

(2015) Documentary (Adama) Harold Michelson, Lillian Michelson, Danny DeVito, Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, Bill Krohn, Rick Carter, Jim Bissell, Gene Allen, Gabriel Hardman, Richard Sylbert, Tom Walsh, Stuart Cornfeld, Norm Newberry, Tish Hicks (voice), Will Vought (voice), Anahid Nazarian, Marc Wanamaker, Patrick Mate. Directed by Daniel Raim

Harold Michelson was a storyboard artist who kind of fell into the work after serving his country in World War II. He had met and fallen in love with Lillian, a penniless but beautiful orphan from Miami who was originally friends with his sister. Although they didn’t know each other well, Harold was smitten and brought her out to California where they eventually got married and started a family.

She had gone to school to become a librarian but ended up founding a research library which would become one of the most valuable in Hollywood. Wanted to know what undergarments Jewish girls wore in Russia in the last decade of the 19th century? The makers of Fiddler on the Roof did and Lillian found out for them. Want to know what a drug lord’s mansion would look like? The makers of Scarface did and Lillian found out for them.

They were never a power couple but as their close friend Danny DeVito put it, they were the beating heart of Hollywood. Respected and beloved, both Harold and Lillian were well known for mentoring young people who were hoping to do what they did someday. Both of them worked on some of the most iconic films in the history of movies, from West Side Story to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

One of the most fascinating sequences in the movie looks at Harold’s storyboarding work on The Graduate. Harold wasn’t just someone who sketched drawings; he understood camera angles and creativity and often his ideas helped make films better, making him much sought after and after The Graduate even more so. Shots like Benjamin Braddock being framed by the crooked leg of Mrs. Robinson were Harold’s idea and many of the shots that we still remember today from that film came out of Harold’s mind.

In some ways, this is four movies for the price of one. We get the story of Harold and Lillian’s courtship, with lots of drawings (presumably by Harold) that depict them during this period. We also meet their family, including an autistic son who has since become a computer programmer. Second, we find out about Harold’s work, the films he worked on and how important his contributions were to some of the most classic films of the era. Third, we see Lillian’s development into the top research librarian in Hollywood and what her own contributions meant.

But it was the fourth part that’s magic. We get more of a sense of the relationship between the two and the love that exists between them, with all their own insecurities (and they both had plenty). The last is set to the strains of Claire de lune by Claude Debussy and a more perfect soundtrack they could not have asked for. The music means something to me personally (I used it to court my own wife) so in the interest of fairness I have to say that the emotional resonance for me was far more than perhaps it might have been for others.

But as informative as the middle two segments are, it is the last one that will stay with me. The couple stayed together for sixty years until Harold sadly passed away in 2006 – Lillian is still alive and living in the Motion Picture Retirement Home and is in her 80s, possibly 90s by now and still beautiful and vivacious and even though her husband has been gone nearly a decade, her love for him is still very much apparent.

The secret to their successful marriage is not just that they were a great team, although of course they were, but simply because they didn’t let anything get in the way of their love. Sure, they fought and sure, they had disagreements but they resolved things between themselves. I won’t say that they draw a roadmap to a successful relationship because every relationship is different, but there’s no doubt that their formula can be useful to anyone who wants to make their relationship last. One can only wish for a marriage and a love like theirs – it’s what most of us aspire to.

This is a beautiful film that is also an informative film and I can count on the fingers of one hand how many films I’ve seen that are both, and I’ve seen thousands of films, maybe tens  of thousands. This movie is going to stay with me for a very long time. It’s premiering at the NYDOCS festival tonight and then playing again tomorrow. After that, keep an eye out for it on the festival circuit this Winter and next Spring (which I think would be the perfect time to see it). Hopefully after that, a savvy distributor will give it a theatrical release or at least make it available for streaming or VOD. This is a movie that very much deserves to be seen.

REASONS TO GO: Informative about the Hollywood process. Some wonderful anecdotes. The love story is beautiful and presented in a touching, heart-warming manner. Great use of music.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit of talking head syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The King and Queen in Shrek 2 are based on Harold and Lillian and even bear their names.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Home movies of people you adore
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Phoenix

Eat Drink Man Woman (Yin shi nan nu)


In China, the dinner table is a wonderful, terrible place.

In China, the dinner table is a wonderful, terrible place.

(1994) Dramedy (Goldwyn) Sihung Lung, Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-Lien Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang, Sylvia Chang, Winston Chao, Chao-jung Chen, Chit-Man Chan, Yu Chen, Ya-Lei Kuei, Chi-Der Hong, Gin-Ming Hsu, Huei-Yi Lin, Shih-Jay Lin, Chin-Cheng Lu, Cho-Gin Nei, Yu-Chien Tang, Chung Ting, Cheng-Fen Tso, Man-Sheng Tu, Chuen Wang, Shui Wang, Hwa Tu, Michael Taylor. Directed by Ang Lee

Films For Foodies

One of my favorite cuisines is Chinese. Done well (which is sadly rare where I live) it is flavorful, fresh and filling. Cuisine is in many ways a reflection of the philosophy of life of the originating culture. China is simple on the surface but very complex the further you delve into it. The same can be said about families, not just in China but in all cultures.

Chu (Lung) is an old school chef, once one of the most honored in Taipei. He is semi-retired now, living with his three adult unmarried daughters. His wife passed away some years back and he is lonely even in a house full of girls. They have modern sensibilities which puzzle him. There was a time when a father’s word was absolute but those days are gone.

Jia-Jen (Yang) is his eldest. Nine years previously, her heart was broken by a suitor who abandoned her. She eventually converted to Christianity with all the fervor of a convert which has caused some friction in the household. She works as a school nurse and has given up on love – until a volleyball coach (Hsu) begins to pay attention to her.

Jia-Chien (Wu) works for an airline as an executive and is fiercely independent, guarding that independence like a mama bear with a cub. She had once wanted nothing more than to follow in her father’s footsteps but in Chinese society women were not chefs – only at home did they ever cook. She sometimes meets up with Raymond (Chan), an old lover with privileges.

Jia-Ning (Y-W. Wang), the youngest, works at a fast-food joint and begins a relationship with Guo Lun (Chen) who has an on-again, off-again relationship with Jia-Ning’s fickle friend whose flightiness is beginning to wear on Guo Lun.

 

On Sundays, Chu prepares an extraordinary meal for all three of his daughters. At table, they share news of each other’s lives and sometimes drop announcements on the family of varying degrees of earth-shattering capability. Chu is being courted by Mrs. Liang (Kuei), the widowed mother of single mom Jin-Rong (Chang) who is almost like a fourth daughter. Mrs. Liang is always accompanied by a billowing cloud of cigarette smoke which brings out the Dragon Lady stereotypes but makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the fragrant clouds of steam that rise from Chu’s gastronomic creations.

There are elements of farce here, as well as soap opera qualities. Each daughter represents a different daughterly virtue in Chinese culture, and each one has her own secret. Chu is not especially pleased with retirement; it doesn’t take much convincing to send him scurrying to his old restaurant to assist Uncle Wen (Wang), an old family friend – and yet he seems to take much more satisfaction from the meals he prepares for his girls, even though they don’t seem to appreciate it much.

Lee spends a great deal of time focusing on the food and its preparation – the entire first scene is essentially a how-to on how Chu prepares one of his epic Sunday dinners. You will be craving Chinese food by the time the first scene is over; you’ll be needing it like a junkie needs heroin by the time the movie is complete. Food is important in Chinese culture and Lee gives it the kind of reverence and due that the French accord a great meal.

 

I like Lung’s performance very much; he sometimes comes off as clueless but one gets the sense that he knows a lot more than what those around him give him credit for (and in the movie’s climax he proves that point beyond a shadow of a doubt). His relationships with his daughters, Wen and Madame Liang are separate, different but all pursued with kindness and tenderness. This is a man who loves to feed people not just physically but in the soul as well.

His daughters are a different bunch, all of whom are stereotypes in a sense but still accorded personalities of their own. Like me, you are likely to form opinions of them based on your own particular point of view informed by your own experiences in life. I won’t judge here; the performances are all solid and you will love them or hate them as individuals but you will have an opinion. These are not the meek, submissive Asian women of a different age – even Jia-Jen who seems the meekest of the three has a core of iron.

Some will find the lives of the daughters a bit soap opera-esque and that may be a turn-off for those sorts. I can understand that; it’s a fair criticism. For my part, I didn’t really mind. When looked at as a cohesive whole, the entanglements of their lives are as dense and complex as the entanglements of our own. If we’re lucky.

Like any Chinese feast, this is meant to be savored slowly and enjoyed for a lifetime. I haven’t seen Lee’s preceding film The Wedding Banquet but it is said to be superior. One of these days I’ll have to check it out. In the meantime, I highly recommend this delectable morsel. If you love Chinese cooking, Chinese cinema, or family dramas – or any combination thereof – this is a meal that was meant just for you.

WHY RENT THIS: A lovely entwining of family and food. Funny in all the right places.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit hard to follow sometimes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some bad language and adult situations as well as some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening sequence, depicting the detailed preparation of a Sunday lunch, took more than a week to film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an interview with director Lee and his long-time producer partner James Schamus newly recorded for the DVD version which arrived in 2002.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.3M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tortilla Soup

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Films for Foodies concludes!

My One and Only


My One and Only

Renee Zellweger is courted by yet another unsuitable suitor.

(Freestyle Releasing) Renee Zellweger, Logan Lerman, Kevin Bacon, Chris Noth, Troy Garity, David Koechner, Eric McCormack, Steven Weber, Nick Stahl, Mark Rendall, Robin Weigert. Directed by Richard Loncraine

The road to growing up can often be a treacherous and confusing one, even under the best of circumstances. Sometimes that road can take you to some really unexpected places and unexpected conclusions.

Ann Devereaux (Zellweger) is a willful, beautiful blonde Southern belle who is the trophy wife of bandleader Danny Devereaux (Bacon). He is best known for the hit song “My One and Only” (not the Gershwin song, for those who know the standards well). He is also a philanderer, the kind of guy who simply can’t help himself when it comes to women. When Ann comes home to Danny “entertaining” a young lady – in her bed – it’s the last straw. She cleans out the safety deposit box, buys a baby blue Cadillac Coupe de Ville and hits the road, her sons George (Lerman) and Robbie (Rendall) in tow.

Robbie is a closet homosexual who dreams of Hollywood; George is a bit more grounded and yearns to write. Ann’s only aspiration is to find a rich husband to support her and her boys in the manner in which they’ve been accustomed to.

This doesn’t go very well. Each stop brings another loser, from Wallace McAllister (Weber), a businessman who is nearly broke and who rifles through Ann’s wallet and runs off while she’s in the restroom. Then there’s Col. Harlan Williams (Noth), a rabid anti-Communist military sort who has a streak of violence in him that isn’t compatible with Ann’s gentrified soul. Old flame Charlie (McCormack) makes no bones about it – Ann’s shelf life as a bombshell has expired, and she is competing with younger women for the same scraps. This leads to a misunderstanding that gets Ann arrested.

Nonetheless, she perseveres, even though George outwardly doubts her decision making and making it clear he wants to go back to his dad, who is less than enthusiastic about taking him. Ann then determines to work for a living, but after disastrous attempts at waitressing and sales, Ann finally meets a paint retail tycoon named Bill Massey (Koechner) who looks to be the most promising suitor yet, but even that doesn’t work out as planned.

The movie is loosely based on the life of actor George Hamilton, who is as well known for his tan and his tango these days as he is for his acting career (he’s also the executive producer of the movie). While it doesn’t give you insight into his acting, the movie will at least give you some insight into the man.

The movie has a bit of a split personality, in a good way. The first part of the movie really belongs to Zellweger, and she carries it pretty well. Nobody does plucky, ditzy blonde quite as well as Zellweger (see the Bridget Jones movies, although Lisa Kudrow does nearly as well on “Friends”), and she captivates the screen throughout. Her Ann Devereaux is brave and terminally cheerful, but with a hint of diva in the background. It must have been a fun role to play and you can see Zellweger enjoying herself.

The second half is Lerman’s, and while his story is a bit more complex, he doesn’t quite rise to the challenge but neither does he fail utterly. Instead, he delivers a solid but unspectacular job that doesn’t measure up to the luminescent performance of Zellweger. Each of the suitors have their own charms, although Koechner surprisingly does the most memorable work here as the troubled tycoon. Some of his scenes have a poignancy that elevates the movie quite a bit, as well as the comic timing Koechner is better known for.

Loncraine does a really nice job of evoking the 50s; the setting lives and breathes in his capable hands instead of being something of a distraction as period pieces often are. This is an era that feels lived in, from the posh penthouses of Manhattan to the grubby motels on Route 66. While this is ostensibly a comedy (and there are some funny portions to it), the truth is the dramatic portions work better; you get the feeling Loncraine was going for a bit of a screwball feel (one review likened it to the work of Preston Sturges, which is a dead on observation).

This got a very limited release when it came out and largely flew under the radar. It deserves better; there are some very fine performances and some nice moments, enough to make this a solid recommendation. Check it out on cable or at your local home video emporium; you’ll be glad you did.

WHY RENT THIS: Lerman does a credible job, while Koechner is surprisingly effective. The era is nicely evoked. Zellweger is excellent as the fading bombshell past her prime.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Tries too hard to be a screwball comedy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some sexuality here and there; nothing you should be ashamed of showing to a 13-year-old.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is dedicated to Merv Griffith, who helped Hamilton develop the project and shepherded it through filming, but didn’t live to see it completed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Lorna’s Silence

Everybody Wants to Be Italian


Everybody Wants to Be Italian

If you'd had five cups of coffee out of this cup, your eyes would be as wide as saucers too.

(Roadside Attractions) Jay Jablonski, Cerina Vincent, John Kapelos, John Enos III, Dan Cortese, Richard Libertini, Penny Marshall, Marisa Petroro. Directed by Jason Todd Ipson

I will admit to having a more than passing affection for Italian culture. Not only do I love the cuisine (hey, I make a wicked lasagna), but I love the sense of family and belonging that is part and parcel of being Italian. Like most non-Italians, I have a bit of an inferiority complex.

Jake Bianski (Jablonski) is not Italian. He’s Polish as a matter of fact, but he owns an Italian fish market with Italian co-workers; Papa Tempesti (Libertini), the patriarch, Gianluca Tempesti (Enos), the ladies man, and Steve Bottino (Kapelos), the amateur psychologist. Jake is single but has a thing about Isabella (Petroro), the girl he broke up with eight years before. Even though she’s married and has three kids, Jake is positive he’s meant to be with her.

Of course, his buddies have all sorts of advice for him, being the caring sorts that they are. Also being busybodies, they set Jake up at a singles club for Italians, even though he’s not Italian. There he meets Marisa Costa (Vincent), a veterinarian who is also not Italian. Both of them claim they’re Italian just to justify their presence at the dance; they wind up going on a date. At the date, stupid Jake can do nothing else but talk about Isabella. Of course, Marisa figures that the two of them are still an item.

Thus they set out to be just friends, and as it turns out, they become good friends. They’re both good people and they have a lot in common. By the time Jake figures out that he wants more than friendship with Marisa, Isabella gets back in the picture.

This is Ipson’s second feature and it’s not bad, not really. Sure, it has loads of romantic comedy clichés and certainly the humor is uneven but there is a kind of offbeat Italian charm to it that kept my interest. There is a surfeit of Quirky Indie Characters to keep the filmmakers indie cred, but I can live with that.

The main leads – Jablonski and Vincent – have enough charisma and chemistry to keep the rooting interest alive. One of the big problems with romantic comedies is that often the leads are cast either because of their notoriety or because of their look. Here, it appears that Ipson tried to put two actors together who worked well together, and their relationship becomes believable; thus as the film progresses you want them to be together.

Does this pander to Italian stereotypes? The answer is yes to a large degree, but it’s never in an offensive way. These aren’t goombahs (at least to my way of thinking) but the kind of Italian you’d find in South Boston; abrasive but with a heart of gold. Nobody shoots anybody and to be honest, I loved spending time with these people, even the non-Italians.

Because the script doesn’t really go too far beyond what I would consider the standard romantic comedy fare, I had to give this a lower ranking than I might have ordinarily. I would have liked the filmmakers to go beyond the stereotypical romantic comedy situations and maybe used their ethnic choices more to their advantage. That worked wonders for Moonstruck. As it is, this isn’t My Big Fat Greek Wedding so much as it is My Big Dumb Italian Courtship. And, as we all know, the Italians are far more expert at love than the protagonists here. Don’t believe me? Get thee to Venice unbeliever!

WHY RENT THIS: There is a good deal of offbeat charm to the movie.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor quotient is a bit uneven and the romantic clichés fall a bit thick and fast.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality and a good deal of sex talk, making this a little bit much for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cerina Vincent went from playing the Yellow Power Ranger on television to becoming a scream queen in movies like Cabin Fever.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The audition tapes for some of the lead actors are there for the perusing.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Changeling