Epicentro


The color and chaos that is Havana.

(2020) Documentary (Kino-Lorber) Leonis Arango Salas, Oona Castillo Chaplin. Directed by Hubert Saupier

 

Cuba is an island 90 miles off the Florida coast that has an inescapable pull on the American imagination. Some see it as a tropical paradise that was corrupted by communism and Castro; others see it as an island Utopia stubbornly standing up to the US and capitalism despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, their main trading partner throughout most of the second half of the 20th century.

Austrian documentary filmmaker Saupier has a tendency to go to small countries trying to chart courses in changing times and environments (as seen in such films as Darwin’s Nightmare and We Come as Friends. Here he sets his sights on Cuba, but this is no travel documentary. You won’t find Rick Steves narrating it.

This is cinema verité in its purest form; Saupier spends time with apparently random people he meets, including young schoolchildren (whom he dubs “The New Prophets” and spends the bulk of his time with), apparent sex workers and some European tourists. Through the film, we see the Cuban point of view which is, to be honest, largely shaped by anti-American propaganda (as ours is, if we’re being honest, shaped by anti-communist propaganda). They look on America’s war with Spain in 1898 not as liberation, but an invasion. Only their beloved Fidel Castro would be able to toss the invaders out with jaw firmly set and “never again” on the lips (during filming, Fidel Castro’s passing was announced on television and we see a Cuban family’s reaction).

It’s hard for me to look at Cuba with an objective eye – my father was Cuban and fled that country during the revolution. He had participated in a raid on the Presidential palace with pro-Castro forces and would have been arrested had he stayed. He was sorely, bitterly disappointed when Castro announced that Cuba would be a communist country and never forgave him for it. I look at the images here – of the tides battering the breakwater in Havana harbor with dazzling plums of spray, the crumbling apartments and streets, the color and warmth of its people – perhaps all of these things are cliché images of Cuba but apparently, they are valid.

Saupier opines that Cuba was at the epicenter of three elements of America’s colonial aspirations; the slave trade, colonization and globalization of power. It was the first place in the world that the American flag was raised outside of our nation. We see abandoned sugar processing mills which once supplied Coca-Cola, and Chryslers and Cadillacs from the 1950s that are still running nearly 70 years later despite a lack of access to replacement parts.

Some are going to listen to the children and some adults making extremely anti-American remarks and will think that this is also the viewpoint of the film. I honestly don’t think so; these kids have been indoctrinated. All people are to a certain extent; we see Cuba through a certain lens just as they see us through a certain lens. That lens is rarely reality on both sides; we see things that fit our point of view. One of us sees a communist country falling apart; another sees American imperialism in action. Neither side is completely wrong.

Saupier doesn’t really comment on anything but lets people say their peace. The problem was that is that it doesn’t make for cohesive filmmaking; this is more dream-like, or more to the point, a hyper-reality but not necessarily your own reality.  And still the waves crash into the breakwater, inexorable. All countries are battered by time, even our own, even Cuba. Wax and wane, that is the fate of nations. Cuba is no different, and as we see her at a crossroads – where tourism seems an easy way out but not one necessarily embraced by its people – one wonders what must surely come to the face of this beautiful island that once fancied itself a Utopia – and maybe still does.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some beautiful and powerful images here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some might find it anti-American, although it’s not.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The destruction of the USS Maine which precipitated the 1898 Spanish-American War is still debated today. While most scholars agree the cause of the explosion was a fire in the coal room, there are those who believe it was set deliberately in order to get the United States into a war against Spain.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cuba and the Cameraman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Jazz on a Summer’s Day

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Dev Patel toasts his participation in an early favorite for the best movie of 2012.

(2011) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Dev Patel, Tena Desae, Lillette Dubey, Sid Makkar, Seema Azmi, Diana Hardcastle, Lucy Robinson, Paul Bhattacharjee. Directed by John Madden

 

Everybody ages. Not everybody gets to grow old and it’s for damn sure that not everybody grows as they age period.

A group of seven British retirees find themselves on a bus for the airport taking them to India. They’re not on a holiday or a tour – they are moving to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a budget-priced retirement facility which claims in their advertisements that they have all the amenities needed so that they might spend their golden years in comfort and luxury.

Their interest is that the Hotel is inexpensive enough that they can all afford to live, as they all (with a couple of exceptions) have some sort of financial difficulty. Evelyn Greenslade (Dench) discovered when her husband passed away that he was deeply in debt and she was forced to sell her home in order to pay them off. Douglas (Nighy) and Jean (Wilton) Ainslie lost their life savings when their daughter’s internet company which they had invested in failed. Muriel Donnelly (Smith), a retired domestic, is going to India for a hip replacement surgery which is the only place where she can afford one. Madge Hardcastle (Imrie) is out to find herself a rich husband who can support her needs. Norman Cousins (Pickup), a ladies’ man, wants one last one-night-stand to tide him over. Finally Graham Dashwood (Wilkinson) who is a retired high court judge, grew up in India and seeks to find a lost love.

The hotel that they arrive at is far from what the advertisements claimed; it is ramshackle, without working phones and is old, decrepit and in need of much repair. Sonny (Patel), the manager, is highly enthusiastic and likable but lacks business know-how. He is desperately trying to get a local businessman to invest in the hotel in order to get it solvent; his mother (Dubey) wants him to come back to Delhi so that she can arrange a proper marriage for him. Sonny however only has eyes for Sunaina (Desae), a call center employee.

The new residents all react in different ways to their environments. Evelyn takes a job at the call center as a consultant to help the employees, including Sunaina whom she forms a friendship with, how to speak to elderly British sorts. She needs the work in order to afford to live at the hotel.

Graham disappears most of the day, rarely talking about where he’s been and what he’s done. He recommends places for the others to explore, which Douglas takes him up on. Jean prefers to stay in her room and read, complaining about everything and everyone. Muriel, whose racially insensitive views made some uncomfortable, begins to come around after her successful surgery and befriends a maid of the Untouchable class. When she gives her some advice on how to better sweep the pavement, the maid is very grateful, despite Muriel’s discomfort.

In fact, all of the residents are being profoundly touched by their surroundings and by each other. Some will find exactly what they’re looking for; others will be disappointed and others will be surprised. All will be confronted by their own mortality and their own shortcomings – and all will be changed by their experiences, and by India.

Madden, best known for directing Shakespeare in Love, assembled a tremendous cast and wisely lets each of them get their moment to shine. The movie is not so much about aging but about living – about never being too old to change and grow. It’s kind of a cross between Bollywood (without the songs and dance), Ealing Studios comedies, and On Golden Pond. While the movie certainly is aimed at an older audience, there is plenty in it for non-seniors to enjoy. It doesn’t hurt that the script (by Ol Parker) is well-written and full of some wonderful lines not to mention a great deal of wisdom.

Each character gets at least a few scenes to shine in; most remarkable are Dench, Wilkinson, Nighy, Smith and Wilton. Imrie and Pickup also fare well in their moments. Dench does a voiceover (which is the vocalization of the blog she’s writing) that is actually non-intrusive and well-written rather than a lot of Hollywood voice-overs which tend to be the writers showing off how well they can turn a phrase. Wilkinson and Nighy are two of the most consistent actors in Hollywood; Nighy often gets parts that are kind of far-out, but here his character is a decent man, worn down from years of living with a shrew. Wilkinson’s characters tend to run the gamut from amoral executives to care-worn fathers but here he is a lonely man, haunted by his past and the repercussions of his decision not to protest an obvious injustice. The inner decency of Graham shows through at every moment; he’s a judge that I would want hearing my case, a man who wins the respect of pretty much all of his compatriots.

This is a movie that you can fall in love with. It allows Indian culture to shine through without over-romanticizing it; you get the sense of the drawbacks of Indian culture as well (the congestion, the poor infrastructure and yes, the smell). However it counterbalances that nicely with the overall accepting nature of the Indian people, the beauty of the temples, palaces and countryside and yes, the people themselves – Patel and Desae make a magnificent couple.

I went in expecting to like this movie but not to love it but I wound up appreciating every moment of it. None of this rings false and to my way of thinking, you get to view the world through the eyes of people who have largely been discarded and marginalized by the world at large. Some of them do indulge in a heaping helping of self-pity but for the most part they find their niche in the world and inhabit it, much like anybody of any age. I know younger people might find the subject matter of seniors trying to fit into the world uninteresting to them but for those who don’t reject the subjects of India and the elderly out of hand, this is a movie you’ll find tremendously rewarding.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing performances. An unsentimental but affectionate look at India. Great one-liners.

REASONS TO STAY: Younger people might find the pace boring and the subject uninteresting.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words scattered here and there, and some of the content is a bit sexual in nature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The novel that Jean is reading is Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, who also wrote These Foolish Things on which this movie is based.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100. The reviews are pretty much positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Young @ Heart

INDIA LOVERS: The area around Jaipur is shown with equal parts crumbling, decaying poverty and ancient beauty. The countryside is equally inviting and for those who haven’t considered visiting India, this acts as a pretty compelling reason to go.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Wild Grass