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

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Wrestling Alligators


And bingo was his game-o.

And bingo was his game-o.

(2016) Documentary (Seventh Art) James Billie, Peter Gallagher, Jeff Testerman, Tim Cox, Bruce Rogow, Max Osceola, Dr. Patricia Wickman, David Cordish, Howard Tommie, Patsy West, Robert Butterworth, Jim Allen, Maria Lorts Sachs, Dr. Katherine Spidel. Directed by Andrew Shea

Florida Film Festival 2016

When people think of Native Americans, often we look to the stereotypes that we receive from Hollywood. We picture them on their reservations, putting on shows for tourists and living in abject poverty. To a certain extent, that has been true although that’s no longer the case for many tribes, including the Seminole tribe of Florida (where this reviewer lives currently).

The members of the Seminole tribe are well off now, receiving an impressive income and that prosperity can be traced back to their current chairman James E. Billie. Once an outcast in the tribe because of his half-Caucasian parentage, he scraped a living by wrestling alligators for tourists and got to be quite good at it. But it wasn’t enough for him.

He went to Vietnam to fight for his country and became well-respected by his fellow soldiers. He came back to Florida after his service to work construction, building chickees (traditional Seminole lodges) among other activities. The charismatic Billie took an interest in tribal politics, first serving on the tribal Council before being elected Chairman in 1979.

Under his stewardship, he opened up a bingo parlor on tribal land (an idea first proposed by the previous tribal chairman, Howard Tommie) which he eventually would convert into a full casino. Despite challenges from the State of Florida which felt that gaming regulations for the State superseded tribal rights, the Supreme Court disagreed and an industry was born.

The Seminoles were the first to open up a major casino on tribal land and their revenue by 2007 had exceeded $1 billion from not only their gaming enterprises but also cattle raising (they are the 12th largest cattle operation in the country) and other tribal ventures. Billie is largely responsible for making the tribe a major economic and political force not only in Florida but in America as well.

As such, he can be viewed as an authentic American hero. No other Native leader in the past 50 years has done more for his tribe than James Billie has for the Seminoles. That isn’t to say that he has always been popular even with his own tribe; in 2001 a financial scandal forced him out of the chairman’s position, although he was later exonerated from any wrongdoing. In 2011, he was re-elected tribal chairman and holds that position to this day; not even a 2012 stroke has slowed him down.

In addition to his business ventures, Billie is an accomplished musician, performing with a group called the Shack Daddies in a style of music he describes as swamp rock; he also has had an impressive solo career, garnering a Grammy nomination in 1999 for the song “Big Alligator” on the Alligator Tears album. He performs several songs in the film and has a pleasant, soothing voice.

This is a movie a long time coming. I hadn’t realized what a larger than life character James Billie was until I saw this movie and it only made me think “Why has nobody made a movie about this guy before now?” His charisma and energy are boundless and his passion for his tribe, their traditions and their well-being shine through. Much of the income from the casinos (the tribe in 2007 bought the Hard Rock Café chain and now owns seven different casinos along with several resorts and the restaurant chain) has been funneled back into the tribe, building schools, hospital and an infrastructure that would be the envy of any community.

The movie works whenever it concentrates on its main character; certainly there are other narrations going on here which tend to get a little bit dry and when you compare the other interviewees to Billie, it’s almost unfair because few people can really hold up to his natural force as a human being.

Billie is not really well-known to the general public outside of Florida and even within his own state; I can’t say I was really familiar with his accomplishments and I live here. The movie serves though to introduce the viewer to a man they should really get to know. I have to say that James Billie has joined an exclusive list in my own personal life for what it’s worth as a man to admire and try to emulate. I don’t know how the Seminole chairman feels about being a role model – he seems to be the sort of man that doesn’t take himself terribly seriously – but there are certainly not many out there who would be better ones.

REASONS TO GO: Billie is a larger than life character who fills up the screen.
REASONS TO STAY: A little dry in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity is occasionally uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Andre Shea also has a law degree.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crooked Arrow
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Kill Your Friends

The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen seite)


The Edge of Heaven

Tuncel Kuritz listens raptly as Nurgul Yesilcay explains the Zorba the Greek reference.

(2007) Drama (Strand) Nurgul Yesilcay, Baki Devrak, Tuncel Kuritz, Hannah Schygulla, Patrycia Ziolkowska, Nunsel Kose, Asuman Altinay, Onder Cakar, Emre Cosar, Nurten Guner, Elcim Eroglu, Sevilay Demirci, Yelda Reynaud, Turgay Tanulku. Directed by Fatih Akin

 

The one truth about life is that none of us survive it. Along the way to our inevitable destination we suffer bumps, bruises and sometimes whole amputations that make many of us, at one time or another, wonder if it’s possible to go another step. Yet it’s the joys, both large and small, that get us through the rough patches.

Ali (Kuritz) is an elderly Turk living in Bremen, Germany. He is alone; he is occasionally visited by his son Nejat (Devrak) who is a professor of German literature at a German university, but the two have only an uneasy connection. Neither one can really relate to the other, let alone understand one another. The gulf between father and son, already deep as with all fathers and their sons, is made wider by the cultural differences they grew up with. Ali is still at heart a Turk and Nejat is essentially a German.

Ali, being a lonely man, sometimes purchases himself a prostitute. One in particular, Yeter (Kose), is a favorite. She, like Ali, is a Turkish expatriate and is doing  the best she can to survive. She misses her daughter Ayten (Yesilcay) who is still in Turkey and is ashamed of her mother. Ayten is also a revolutionary whom the Turkish government is after.

Muslims in Bremen are not too thrilled with Yeter’s profession of choice and urge her, in no uncertain terms, to think about a career change or face the wrath of their community. Ali, discovering this, invites her to live with him so that she might continue to practice her profession (and this isn’t all altruistic – Ali wants her to provide her professional services in exchange for the room and board). It’s a pretty sweet arrangement for Ali but a momentary loss of control leads to a tragedy that has life-altering consequences for the both of them.

Nejat, horrified at what has occurred, travels to Turkey to find Ayten so that he may tell her what has happened and, if needed, do whatever he can to help. He is taken by his homeland which he has never seen and winds up impulsively buying a German-language bookstore in Istanbul which comes with two apartments over the store. He lives in one and rents the other to Susanne (Schygulla).

Susanne is a German mother who is in Turkey for her daughter Charlotte (Ziolkowska) who has travelled to Turkey for…well, let’s backtrack a moment. You see, even as Nejat had travelled to Istanbul, Ayten had fled to Germany to find her mom and to escape arrest. She hooks up with Charlotte, whose relationship with her mom is – you guessed it – strained. Susanne is an ex-hippie who went from that lifestyle to becoming a more bourgeois woman in order to provide for her daughter for which Charlotte has never forgiven her. Charlotte is fascinated with Ayten, whose status as a revolutionary on the run excites Charlotte’s sense of political romanticism. However, when Ayten is arrested, she is deported back to Turkey to be arrested. Charlotte goes to Istanbul to try and help Ayten be freed and then….life happens.

Akin, who was born in Germany to Turkish parents, presents a film with three distinct storylines. All of them are linked but ingeniously enough, none of the characters are aware of how closely linked they are. All of them crisscross their way through the various storylines without knowing their effect on each skein of the tapestry. This takes some pretty sophisticated writing and directing to pull off without throwing in serendipitous devices that exist only to move the plot from A to B. Here, you feel an organic flow and nothing ever seems forced.

The mood here as you can tell is somewhat bittersweet. None of these characters has easy lives or make the right choices in every case. They, as we alluded to earlier, suffer bumps, bruises and amputations and not all of them will be alive when the end credits roll. While the movie can get heavy-handed with the tragedies to the point where you want to scream “We get it! Life sucks! Let’s move on shall we” at the screen (or monitor if that’s your means of viewing).

There are some very nice performances. Many of the actors are well-known in Turkey but almost completely unknown here. Schygulla might be remembered by older readers as the muse of Rainier Warner Fassbinder, one of Germany’s legendary directors of the 70s and 80s. She lends some grace and gravitas to the movie and serves as the audience surrogate to a large extent. She is unfamiliar with Turkish culture (which we get a nice deep look at here) and navigates through a tricky emotional maze with her daughter.

This is the kind of film that will stay with you for a long time unless you’re the sort that don’t like to use a lot of grey matter when it comes to watching movies. There are a lot of themes to consider here, a lot of intellectual fodder for the engine. It is a film that sets out deeply drawn characters and allows them to interact and breathe. You’ll feel like you know all of them, see them at the market and run into them on the street for a 5 minute conversation about trivial things. But there’s nothing trivial about this film. Nothing at all.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing, bittersweet mood. A look inside Turkish culture. Solidly acted.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Heavy-handed in places, particularly in the Job-like suffering.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of sexuality, as well as adult themes, language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the police officers in the film are actual cops.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.8M on an unreported production budget; looks like the film was a box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Incendies

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Janie Jones