Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où?)


Where Do We Go Now?

The Lebanese team voguing competition is underway.

(2011) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Leyla Hakim, Nadine Labaki, Yvonne Maalouf, Antoinette Noufaily, Julian Farhat, Ali Haidar, Kevin Abboud, Petra Saghbini, Mostafa Al Sakka, Sasseen Kawzally, Anjo Rihane. Directed by Nadine Labaki

 

It is sometimes mystifying why men fight and kill over religious belief. It’s not like our religions vary to so much degree that they are completely incompatible; at the end of the day, they’re more like than unalike.

A small village in an unnamed country (but thee and me can call it Lebanon, where the movie was filmed) has been cut off from the rest of the world by land mines, leaving the only way in and out a tiny road over a terrifying bridge. In some ways this has benefitted the village; the Muslims and Christians who make up equal parts of the population live in relative harmony, the mosque and church alongside each other and the priest and imam both in agreement that peace between their flocks would be beneficial to all.

That doesn’t mean they achieved it without cost; the town’s cemetery is littered with graves of men and boys taken well before their time over religious violence. The women of the town have grown tired of endless funerals and mourning their husbands, sons and fathers. They all get along famously; why can’t the men?

When Roukoz (Haidar), whose scooter trips to neighboring towns for supplies represent the only contact with the rest of the world, brings in an antenna, the town once again is blessed with television reception – albeit on a single television set. With it comes news of strife between Muslims and Christians elsewhere in the country. This sets the men to muttering amongst themselves.

Some have no time for this. Beautiful Amale (Labaki), a Christian, is having her cafe repainted by the handsome handyman Rabih (Farhat) and she dreams of a relationship with him. He also finds himself attracted to her but neither know how to breach the subject of actually dating.

However, little incidents begin to inflame the men of the town. The holy water in the Church is substituted by chicken blood. A herd of goats is let into the mosque. The women do whatever they can to defuse the situation; Takla (Moussawbaa), the mayor’s wife, fakes a miracle. Ukrainian strippers are brought in to distract the men. When that fails, the women host a party in which treats laced with hashish are served to mellow out the boys.

However, things get a great deal more serious when Roukoz, on one of his trips to town, is caught in the crossfire between Christian and Muslim militia and is killed. Nassim (Abboud), his cousin, mournfully brings back the body, unable to tell even which side shot the fatal bullet. Realizing that this incident could set off the powder keg, the women resolve to keep the incident quiet until tempers cool down. But can they be successful, or will more bodies be joining Nassim in the graveyard?

This is a story that in many ways is close to Labaki’s heart. Obviously she’s passionate about it, having co-written, starred in and directed the material. She grew up in Lebanon where, as she put it, time was equally divided between home and shelter. There were many days, she said in a studio interview, when it was too dangerous for her to go outside. She got a front row seat to religious conflict.

A significant number of the cast were locals with no acting experience and yet they perform well as an ensemble here. Labaki and Farhat by necessity take much of the attention, having a romantic attraction but even the Ukrainian actresses who plaid the strippers have a naturalistic feel to them. The people here seem comfortable in their roles; one wonders how much of it is what they are used to in their real lives.

This is definitely a bit of a fantasy, a what-if women were in charge in that region. When given the more subordinate role women play in that part of the world, it’s a legitimate question and I’m sure one that many women in that war-weary region must ask themselves as they attend another funeral, or read in the newspapers of another atrocity.

My issue with the movie is the attempt to juxtapose levity and pathos. When it’s done right, it’s seamless and natural but here it’s kind of jarring. On the one hand, there’s a fairly comic scene of the men high on hashish, but prior to that the mother of the slain Roukoz is comforted by the women of the village. It’s an extremely emotional scene whose effectiveness is cut off at the knees by the blissed-out men thereafter. The movie could have been that much more powerful had it been more successful at balancing the two elements.

The village life depicted here is endearing and comforting in its own way; even big city dwellers long for the familiarity of small town life (although not necessarily the insular attitudes which are largely absent here). While there is an element of the fantastic here (there are musical numbers here which also serve to jar the audience out of the movie a bit, although they are admittedly well-staged), it is the realism of the village life that I found stayed with me most, although I admired the subject matter a great deal. It’s not as effective as it might have been in addressing it but the movie is still one I can give a strong recommendation to without hesitating.

REASONS TO GO: Moving in places and amusing in others. Fascinating subject matter and canvas.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks focus.  

FAMILY VALUES: There is some implied sexuality, some images of violence and thematic drug use in one scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Where Do We Go Now? is the highest grossing Arabic language film in Lebanese history and the third-highest overall.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lysistrada

VOGUE LOVERS: In the opening scene, a group of women walk in to the town cemetery. Along the way the walk evolves into a bit of a dance which looks very much like Madonna’s old Vogue thing.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Eclipse

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Turn Me On, Dammit! (Få meg på, for faen)


Turn Me On, Dammit

Just because a teen girl is in bed doesn't mean she's thinking about sleep.

(2011) Teen Sex Comedy (New Yorker) Helene Bergsholm, Malin Bjorhovde, Henriette Steenstrup, Beate Stofring, Matias Myren, Lars Nordtveit Listau, Jon Bleiklie Devik, Julia Bache-Wiig, Julia Elise Schacht, Arthur Berning, Hilde-Gunn Ommedal. Directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen

 

Hollywood has explored teen sexuality with a bit of a vengeance. Teens losing their virginity, teens frustrated by their raging hormones and teens just generally looking to get laid are all common themes – but always from the male perspective. Sex for teen girls has always been relegated to either a search for Mr. Right or as objects for teen boys.

Alma (Bergsholm) is different, at least as far as Hollywood perceptions of teen girls go. Sure, she’s sweet on a specific guy – hunky Arthur (Myren) – but she has urges and I mean all the time. She puts teen boys to shame. She is constantly getting herself off (forcing her mother (Steenstrup) to don earplugs at night so she doesn’t hear her daughter’s moans), looks at porn magazines and spends well over six thousand kroner (about $1,000 US) on phone sex. In fact, the phone sex operator she usually chats with has gotten to know her well enough that he knows about her fascination with Arthur and about the tiny little town in Norway that she lives in.

Skoddeheimen is bucolic, nestled in the mountains and fjords of Norway but far from any semblance of anything that would keep a teen from getting bored. Alma hangs out with her friends Sara (Bjorhovde) and Ingrid (Stofring). The former smokes like a chimney and dreams of moving to Texas where she would become an anti-death penalty activist (good luck with that one) while the latter is a bit on the empty-headed bitchy side and is constantly applying layer after layer of lip gloss, making Snooki look positively hippie-like.

The girls take the bus to and from school, talk about boys, get adult men to buy beer for them and smoke disconsolately in a bus stop shelter on the edge of town which is kind of a clubhouse for them. They go to school and party – that’s life in Skoddeheimen. At a party at the Youth Center one night, Alma steps outside to sneak a beer. Arthur joins her there and suddenly without any apparent reason, whips out his member and rubs it against her leg.

Alma is suitably surprised and runs inside to tell all her friends. Ingrid, who has a big crush on Arthur, refuses to believe it happened and when confronted Arthur denies it as well. Alma soon finds herself completely ostracized, shunned like she has a scarlet letter embroidered on her chest. Ingrid spews venom at her every chance she gets and even Sara finds it impossible to be seen with her at school. The kids start calling her “Dick-Alma” and the nickname follows her everywhere except to her home where her mother is completely oblivious to the hell her daughter is going through.

And hell is exactly what it is; shunned, no longer invited to parties, the guy she has had a crush on for a long time refuses to speak to her. Alma gets a job at the co-op market working for the genial Sebjorn (Devik) who happens to be Sara and Ingrid’s dad (did I mention they’re sisters) but when he discovers Alma’s out of control sexuality and Alma discovers the reason for Arthur’s distance and denial, she gets fed up and runs away to Oslo to visit Maria (Bache-Wiig), the older sister of Sara and Ingrid who is attending university there. Desperately lonely, Alma opens up to Maria and her roommates and for the first time in quite awhile finds acceptance.

Eventually her break in the city must end and she must return home to Skoddeheimen. Can she get past the small village’s perceptions of her or even change them, or is she doomed to be an outcast for the rest of her life (or at least until she graduates).

This is a heartwarming movie with a wry sense of humor. The teens here act like teens (flipping the bird to the road sign with the town’s name on it every time they pass it) and don’t have all the answers. They can be petty and vindictive but also enormously loyal and caring as well.

The fact that almost none of these actors had any professional experience before this movie is amazing. Bergsholm in particular had a role that can’t have been easy; it calls for some displays of sexuality that would make adult actresses uneasy and she is in nearly every scene in the movie. She’s quite beautiful with a shy but charming smile and an attitude that shows the kind of strength a lot of adults don’t possess. Sure Alma is a horndog, but she’s admirable just the same. She doesn’t always deal with her sexuality well, but what teenager does? I don’t think she is a role model precisely but she isn’t far from one.

Steenstrup is one of the few adults in the movie and she gives the single mom in the movie (Alma’s dad is never in the picture) the kind of frustration and confusion that every parent of a teen daughter can relate to (and it’s not by accident that the mother is never given a name). The mom doesn’t always handle her daughter’s situation gracefully and she is sometimes caught up in her own problems to really take enough notice of her daughter’s and her reactions tend to be on the knee-jerk side. Like every parent she has no manual to consult and so she just wings it, sometimes doing or saying the perfect thing, other times stumbling into disaster. As parenting goes, that’s pretty much universal.

As I said at the top of the review this is an unusual film for its female perspective. Some will find the opening scene with Alma lying on the kitchen floor with her hand down her panties masturbating while listening to her favorite phone sex operator describe what he’s doing to her shocking; others will have their feathers ruffled at the nudity displayed here. If you tend to be on the prudish side, this might not be your cup of Aquavit. However, while teen sexuality is at the center of the movie, it isn’t about teen sex but more about our attitudes towards female sexuality. Why aren’t girls allowed to enjoy sex or want it? When boys/men are horny, we snigger and shrug it off as “boys will be boys” but when girls/women do it, they’re sluts. I guess I just don’t understand why we have to look at both cases differently.

This is a movie with a gentle sense of humor that has a certain amount of sex, but I never found it raunchy like a Porky’s type of movie or even like an American Pie sort of thing. Rather, it looks at teen female sexuality with level head and open eyes. That seems to me to be a more sensible way of promoting understanding.

REASONS TO GO: An unusual look at teen sexuality from the female perspective. Well-acted and funny from a realism standpoint.

REASONS TO STAY: There’s a lot of emphasis on female masturbation and fantasizing which might put conservative folks out of sorts.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexuality and nudity, as well as several scenes of female masturbation. There are rude words and gestures and plenty of teen smoking, drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers tried to make most of the cast local to the Sogn og Fjordane district where the film was set so that the dialects would be accurate. 450 teenagers were seen which isn’t a large amount for this kind of film but is a significant percentage of the overall population of 10,000 for the district.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100. Early reviews are highly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The First Time

FJORD LOVERS: The area the movie was filmed in has its share of fjords and they are beautifully captured here.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Bully

Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv)


Police, Adjective

Apparently Ion Stoica didn't get the direction for everyone to face the window, or he's just a maverick at heart.

(2009) Comedy (IFC) Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov, Irina Saulescu, Ion Stoica, Marian Ghenea, Cosmin Selesi, George Remes, Dan Cogalniceanu, Serban Georgevici, Alexandru Sabadac. Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu

When confronted by conscience, the expression of our actions can sometimes be as important as the actions themselves. It is not only important to do the right thing, it is also important to express why the thing you’re doing is right.

Cristi (Bucur) is a cop in the provincial Romanian city of Vaslui. He has been given orders to keep an eye on a young teenager who smokes hashish with his friends on a daily basis; one of them has snitched on the teen, claiming that he has been supplying them with dope. It is a dreary and boring job as Cristi spends hours just watching the teens smoke.

His wife Anca (Saulescu) is a schoolteacher who is a bit stuffy about grammar and syntax. The two debate the literary interpretation of an inane Romanian pop song one evening after dinner; the wife listens to the song over and over again obsessively while Cristi’s nature is to analyze what the song means, but in a more rational matter; he doesn’t have a lot of room in his world for interpretation.

But apparently this conversation opens his eyes to the idea that he does have room, and he begins to make it when it comes to the teenager. If Cristi arrests him, the boy will be put in jail for a minimum of five years and more likely eight. The boy’s life and future will be utterly ruined. To further complicate matters, Cristi strongly suspects that the law governing this misdemeanor will be changed a few years down the road when Romania joins the European Union. He also believes that the teenager was snitched on so that the informant could make a move on the boy’s girlfriend. There seems to be a great deal of injustice happening in this small, insignificant crime.

When Cristi’s superior officer, Anghelache (Ivanov) pressures him for an arrest, Cristi flat-out refuses to arrest the boy. He simply doesn’t want the ruining of the boy’s life on his conscience. Anghelache, a somewhat fatherly figure, doesn’t hesitate. Out comes the dictionary in a scene that is at once gripping and droll as the two debate the meanings of words like “police” and “conscience.”

I know this all sounds a bit cerebral and maybe even boring but the movie is anything but. This is a fascinating slice of life that masquerades as a police procedural. Here in the States, we think of cop shows mostly as CSI-like, or like “Law and Order,” with brilliant detectives out there catching bad guys in a very black and white milieu.

Here, there isn’t necessarily a bad guy, just a kid who is making a bad life choice. When Cristi’s conscience comes into play the movie elevates into something else completely. Who knew that a scene in which two people essentially debate the meanings of certain words could be so riveting?

Not everyone will agree with me on this. I will grant you that the pace is exceedingly slow, maybe too much for American audiences to really tolerate. Much of the movie is dialogue-free, but when the characters do talk they all have something to say. Even the inanities like the bureaucrats who make excuses why files can’t be delivered to the cop’s desk in a timely manner, or a fellow cop (Stoica) who is offended at not having been invited to his partner’s home for a meal, have a richness to them that fill up the palate of real life, something that Romanian films have been extremely successful at doing over the past decade as their film industry has become one of the finest in the world in terms of consistent quality.

Bucur has a sad sack quality to him and is in many ways the most loosely drawn character of the lot; he is a bit of an everyman who I think is a means of representing the audience in a somewhat absurd situation. Ivanov, who played the sinister abortionist in Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days is superb as the fatherly but officious police captain who not only wants his officer to enforce the law but to understand why it is important he do so without question. It’s an interesting debate that you want to take part of yourself as you watch, always the sign of a movie that is succeeding in its goals.

WHY RENT THIS: A very interesting look at the other side of police work and the value of conscience in law enforcement. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pace is snail-like to the extreme and impatient audiences who tire of reading subtitles might give up on it quickly.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some depiction of teen drug use as well as a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Romania’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar of 2009.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Pirate Radio

A Prophet (Un prophete)


A Prophet (Un Prophete)

Cesar is crimelord over all he surveys.

(Sony Classics) Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi, Reda Kateb, Jean-Philippe Ricci, Gilles Cohen, Antoine Basler, Leila Bakhti. Directed by Jacques Audiard

Prison is a human cesspool. We put all of our bad apples in one basket and expect every apple we throw in afterwards to somehow come out good. It doesn’t happen that way with apples, nor with people.

Malik El Djebena (Rahim) has been in trouble with the law since he was very young. Now, his crimes (apparently he attacked a police officer although it’s never stated outright) have landed him in an adult prison for the first time, with a six year sentence. He is understandably nervous, being neither an intimidating physical specimen nor a particularly violent person.

He is street smart rather than book-learned. He cannot read and he can barely write much more than signing his own name. The only thing he has going for him is a highly developed survival instinct, something that will serve him particularly well in this prison which is not controlled by the guards or the warden, but by a troll of a man named Cesar Luciani (Arestrup). Cesar is the leader of the Corsican crime faction in the prison, reporting in turn to shadowy people outside of the prison.

Cesar walks with impunity in places other prisoners dare not go. He is surrounded by bodyguards and has a cell phone from which orders come down, and one has; Reyeb, an Arabic criminal who will soon be testifying in court will be housed in the prison until the trial. Cesar needs to make sure that the man doesn’t make it to court.

Unfortunately, Cesar’s tentacles don’t extend far beyond his own immediate world. Reyeb is being housed in a wing where prisoners, including newcomer Malik, are kept “under observation” until it is deemed they are fit to join the general observation, after which he will be moved to the wing where the Muslim prisoners are kept, and where he will be beyond Cesar’s reach.

Cesar knows he must strike swiftly while the prisoner is in the temporary wing, but if he uses one of his men to do the deed, it would likely be traced back to him. When the newcomer shows sexual interest in Malik (who showers in the stall next to him), Cesar realizes he has his solution.

Malik is given no real options; he has never killed before, but he must kill this stranger or else Cesar will kill him. That Cesar will carry out that threat is made very clear to Malik, who is reluctant to cross this particular line. A lieutenant instructs Malik in how to conceal a razor blade in his mouth and how to strike suddenly.

When the time comes, Malik, given a terrible choice, chooses self-preservation. He performs the deed, but botches it; still, he gets away with it because Cesar had the foresight to make sure that the temporary wing was cleared of people when Malik was doing what he was supposed to do.

This act earns Malik protection from the Corsicans and alienation from the Muslims. Malik becomes a quick study, learning the ways of criminal success and develops a little mini-empire of his own, thanks largely to his only friends Ryad (Bencherif) and the gypsy stoner Jordi (Kateb). Furthermore, Malik has visions of Reyeb, visions that give him guidance on what to do, which leads people to wonder if Malik is something of a prophet. Still, it is a brutal world he exists in and the closer Malik gets to Cesar, the more dangerous things become.

This was one of the most acclaimed movies to come out of France last year, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and sweeping the major categories at the Cesars, France’s version of the Oscars. Speaking of the Oscars, it was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category, losing out to Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes.

This is a stark, grey movie with little color; the bleakness of the prison surroundings prevents that and that’s mostly where this movie takes place. It is characterized by some startling performances, particularly Arestrup as Luciani. His eyes are cold, reptilian but filled with intelligence. He is a man prone to fits of sudden and brutal violence, but has enough self-discipline to keep that rage in check. He has the arrogance of a man who knows he is in absolute control, yet is so unprepossessing physically that you might think him the prison librarian.

Rahim plays Malik as a bit of a cipher. Malik rarely displays much of what he’s feeling or thinking, and while he may be illiterate, he is still a clever man. He realizes that his key to survival is to blend in with every faction and become indispensible to both sides, which he does with a vengeance. He also observes everything he can and winds up learning enough to not only succeed but thrive.

One of my big issues with the movie is that it is almost two and a half hours long – I’m not sure if it’s a mindset endemic to gangster epics, but this is a movie that really didn’t need to be that lengthy, particularly the last twenty minutes. It seemed to me that the points the filmmakers were trying to make could have been made a lot more simply and in a lot less time. Perhaps it’s my American impatience, or the fact that by the end of the movie I reeeeeally had to use the restroom, but I found myself wishing the movie would reach its conclusion, which is a bad place for a movie to be in.

That’s why it’s not getting as high a rating as it probably deserves. Audiard has crafted a gritty and realistic look at French prison life and it isn’t a pretty picture as well you might imagine, but then again it’s not supposed to be. Leo Tolstoy once wrote that you judge a society by how it treats its prisoners, and A Prophet will give you plenty of food for thought.

REASONS TO GO: A gritty look at French prison life; at its best recalls some of the best moments of Coppola and Scorsese.

REASONS TO STAY: Too, too long – the last 20 minutes could have been easily have been condensed into scenes totaling about two.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brutal violence including at least one blood-soaked murder, disturbing images and much male nudity along with some scenes of sexuality. This is not for the squeamish and certainly not for the young ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Audiard met Rahim when the two shared a ride from another film set.

HOME OR THEATER: The claustrophobic atmosphere of prison life is more suitable for the small screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Oceans