Diamantino


Attack of the fluffy puppies.

(2018) Comedy Fantasy (Kino Lorber) Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Magrida Moreira, Carla Maciel, Chico Chapas, Hugo Santos Silva, Joana Barrios, Felipe Vargas, Maria Leite, Manuela Moura Guedes, Djucu Dabo, Leandro Vieira, Vitor Alves daSilva, Abilio Bejinha, Vitor de Almeida, Elisabete Pendeira. Directed by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt

 

Most movies are fairly straightforward. Some, however, are a little bit on the weird side. Still others are just so out in left field that the best thing to do instead of thinking about it too much is to just go with it. Diamantino is one such film. How to describe it? IndieWire critic David Ehrlich described it as a “technicolor glitter bomb of a movie” and that’s as close to a perfect description as we mortals are likely to get.

Diamantino (Cotta) is the world’s best soccer player, leading his Portuguese team into the 2018 World Cup finals. He is a good-hearted, terminally naive but dumb as a rock man. His career is guided by his loving father (Chapas) but also in the picture are his amazingly venal twin sisters (A. Moreira and M. Moreira) who see their lunk of a brother as a never-ending meal ticket and from whom they embezzle cash at a terrifying rate. It has gotten to the point where the Portuguese authorities in the persons of Lucia (Leite) and Aisha (Tavares), a pair of federal agents who also happen to be lesbian lovers.

Diamantino owes his success to being able to eliminate distractions of the crowd and even the other players on the pitch by visualizing the stadium as a field of cotton candy in which giant Pekingese puppies the size of trucks cavort.  When he is fouled in the final seconds of the game and has a chance to tie it up after being awarded a penalty kick, the Portuguese announcers assume that they have the tie in the bag. Inexplicably, the visualization fails and Diamantino misses the kick by a country mile, going from national hero to international disgrace in the blink of an eye. The situation is so unthinkable that his dad has a fatal heart attack.

Stunned by the double blows, Diamantino decides to do something inspiring and adopt a refugee child. The agents recognize the opportunity and insert Aisha as “Rahim,” a young boy from Madagascar. Nobody in the household seems to notice that Rahim is an adult female. The sisters, now freed from the constraints of their father, decide to further exploit their brother by delivering him to Portuguese nationalists who want Portugal out of the EU and use Diamantino as the poster boy for that movement. In addition, a mad scientist (Maciel) working for the Portuguese government is allowed to conduct experiments in an attempt to clone Diamantino and extract the source of his genius which has something to do with combining clownfish DNA with his, consequently causing female breasts to grow above his magnificent pectorals – and it gets weird from there.

Fans of French absurdist Michel Gondry will likely be doing cartwheels in the theater at the sight of this feature for first-time feature directors Abrantes and Schmidt. There is a whimsical, almost fairy tale-like tone to the film that plays like one of those dreams that make no sense at all but make perfect sense while you’re asleep. I couldn’t help but suspect that there is an allegory going on here and there are certainly a lot of salient political points, addressing the refugee crisis, rampant European nationalism, genetic manipulation and the exploitation of sports stars.

Despite the political points this isn’t a political film and the filmmakers tend to address their subjects superficially. This is, after all, a comedy and one suspects that even the filmmakers don’t take the movie too seriously. It is a mishmash of genres, including espionage thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, satire, spoof and sports film. In other words, something for everybody – well, nearly everybody.

The effects are low-budget and look it but the cinematography is strong and the score is really nice, augmenting the mood well. Some are definitely going to find it too radically weird so those who find Monty Python too high-brow might want to give this a miss. For the rest, this is a remarkably entertaining, endearing and occasionally sweet morality play that ranges from laugh-out-loud funny to heart-tugging pathos. Any movie with giant puppies can’t be all bad.

For Florida readers, the film is currently playing only at the MDC Tower Theater on the campus of Miami Dade College so if you want to catch it in a theater, you’ll have to go there. Keep an eye out for it at your local arthouse; otherwise expect it to be available to stream later this year.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely imaginative from the plot to the effects. A really nice score.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too whimsical for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead character was loosely based on Christiano Ronaldo and the story inspired by a pair of essays by David Foster Wallace.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Science of Sleep
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Free Trip to Egypt

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night


The more that things change, the more that they decay.

(2018) Mystery (Kino-Lorber) Wei Tang, Jue Huang, Sylvia Chang, Hong-Chi Lee, Yongzhong Chen, Feiyang Luo, Meihuaizi Zeng, Chun-hao Tuan, Yanmin Bi, Lixun Xie, Xi Qi, Ming Dow, Zezhi Long, Jian Jun Ding, Kailong Jiang, Kai Liang, Chuanren Lin, Xizhen Liu, Tongfu Long, Zhonglan Luo, Zhengfu Meng, Hongyue Pan. Directed by Gan Bi

 

Funny thing about dreams; they’re often more real to us than what we perceive as reality. Dreams reveal our true selves – the good, the bad and the ugly. Dreams can be beautiful, but dreams reveal the lives we wish we had led.

Luo Hongwu (Huang) is returning to the Southwestern China town of Kaili which he had lived in much earlier days of his life. He has returned there after the death of his father, the ne’er-do-well gambler nicknamed Wildcat (Lee). Luo finds a photo of a woman (Tang) hidden in a broken clock and vaguely remembers a relationship with someone who looked like her – and her name might have been Wan Qiwen. He goes in search of the woman.

Along the way he interacts with a rogue’s gallery of oddball characters from a crusty hairdresser (Chang), a precocious 12-year-old boy who lives in an abandoned mine, and assorted pimps, thieves, hookers, thugs and cops. Luo finds himself in a movie theater and sits back to watch the movie in 3D, putting on his 3D glasses. That’s when dreams become reality, and vice versa.

If you think I’m being deliberately vague about the plot, you’re not wrong. The thing is that this is something of a stream-of-consciousness film which has a kind of dream logic to it in which the laws of physics might just be suggestions. Director Gan Bi hit the critical radar in 2015 with his debut feature Kaili Blues which contained a single 40-minute tracking shot. He outdoes himself here with one that lasts close to an hour – in 3D yet – that takes up the entire second half of the film. It is a magnificent technical achievement but in the immortal words of Ian Malcolm (as spoken by the equally immortal Jeff Goldblum) he was so busy figuring out if he could he didn’t stop to think whether he should.

Bi is a visual wizard and the shots are so thoughtfully framed, so beautifully lit and the production design so exquisite that you realize that he’s heavily influenced by the great Chinese director Kar-Wei Wong. It’s a beautiful movie to watch and if you’re tempted to avoid reading the subtitles altogether and just let yourself float among the images, I wouldn’t blame you. In fact, I think that’s a good way to approach this movie because the dialogue is absolutely superfluous.

Movies in many respects are dreams given form and I don’t know about you but some of my dreams would make shitty movies. This is a long (nearly two and a half hours), slowly paced and often confusing film that, like a dog trying to settle down in its bed for a nap often turns round and round on itself before settling down, only to get up again and do the same thing all over again. In that respect this isn’t a movie for everybody except the most esoteric and avant garde of filmgoers. Mainstream audiences aren’t going to like this very much.

There is a very Noir tone to the film which is welcome; it is set in a city where the rainfall is constant, like Seattle on steroids. As a result, there is a sense of decay and entropy to the surroundings where water is wont to break through walls and create nifty little waterfalls. Most of the characters smoke like chimneys and not just because everyone in China seems to be a chain-smoker but because smoke and water go together as motifs. Incidentally, despite the title there is no connection here that I could see with the classic Eugene O’Neill play.

This should be approached as fine art; very subject to interpretation. The story isn’t the important thing which is something that will have most mainstream moviegoers headed for the exits. What matters here is the tone, the vision, the feeling and the thoughts provoked, but don’t say we didn’t war you about the whole art thing.

For readers in Miami the movie is currently playing this week at the Cinematheque before taking up residence at the AMC Sunset Place. Keep an eye for the visual cues as to when to put on your 3D glasses; there’s a brief graphic informing the audience to put on their glasses when you see the main character put on his.

REASONS TO SEE: The shot composition is outstanding. There is a definite Noir feel to the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a bit of a slog, figuratively and literally.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sensuality and a crazy amount of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chinese moviegoers felt misled by the marketing campaign which billed the film as a Noir mystery and less as an art house experience leading to a good deal of Internet backlash.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into the Void
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Postal (2019)

The Last Resort


Back in the day, the residents of South Beach really knew how to have a good time.

(2018) Documentary (Kino Lorber) Gary Monroe, Ellen Sweet Moss, Susan Gladstone, Kelly Reichardt, Mitchell Kaplan, Edna Buchanan, Stan Hughes, Denise Bibro. Directed by Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch

 

In the years after World War II, the city of Miami went through what would have to be termed a major renaissance. The beautiful beaches, warm weather and the presence of brand spanking new air-conditioned hotels became irresistible to those from the Northeast who endured harsh winters. Many of them, close to retirement age, decided that Miami would be a fine place to live. There were plenty of old art deco hotels in the South Beach area that had been converted to apartments; rents were dirt cheap. South Beach became a largely Jewish community, termed by residents as a stetl, a small but vibrant settlement.

Andy Sweet was a Miami native, the son of a prominent Miami judge whose family had helped develop the big beach side hotels that brought in a vibrant nightlife (Miami was the second home of the Rat Pack and most of the big names in Vegas played there regularly. Jackie Gleason hosted a variety show from there back in the day.

Along with his good friend Gary Monroe, the two young photographers set out to capture the South Beach community. Most of the residents were getting on in age; many of them were Holocaust survivors. Dubbed the Miami Beach Project, Sweet and Monroe proposed a ten year involvement, recording the residents and places that made South Beach so unique.

The two couldn’t have had more different styles. Monroe preferred black and white as a medium; his pictures were largely posed and had a more somber quality to them. Sweet preferred a much more spontaneous approach; his photos nearly exploded with color capturing not only the moment but the personalities of the people in them. Although many of the subjects posed for Sweet, he managed to get a more casual look as if capturing them in the act of being themselves.

Sweet wouldn’t live to see the project through to completion. A mere five years in to the project, Sweet was brutally murdered in 1982 at the age of 28, found stabbed 29 times in his apartment in what was conjectured to have been a drug deal gone terribly wrong. Miami was already changing drastically when Sweet died; a huge influx of Latin (mainly Cuban) immigrants began to change the culture of Miami and on the flip side, became the center of the cocaine trade at about the same time leading to an exponential increase in violence. Although Monroe went on to complete the project alone, by the time he did most of the Jewish residents were already gone, having moved to places like Fort Lauderdale and Boynton Beach where rents were more reasonable. These days South Beach is the center for nightlife in Miami, where the young and famous go to be seen.

While there are plenty of talking head interviews with Monroe and Sweet’s sister Ellen as well as a few people who knew him or of him (director Kelly Reichardt is one) which generally speaking can be terribly irritating, it is the photographs that Sweet took that takes center stage. They very nearly didn’t.

After Sweet’s death, his family was too distraught to even look at his photographs and put his negatives in storage. When Monroe broached the subject of putting together a retrospective of his partner’s work only three months after Sweet’s death, his family was infuriated and this led to an estrangement between Monroe and Sweet’s family that lasted for decades. In the meantime, the storage company charged with keeping Sweet’s negatives inexplicably lost them during a move. They have to this day not been recovered.

Fortunately, his sister’s partner Stan Hughes found several boxes of work prints while emptying a family storage unit. Hughes is something of a digital photography expert and although the prints were badly faded with time, he was able to start the restoration process, restoring the pictures to their original color vibrancy.

]The movie is not only a pictorial history of the evolution of South Beach but also a love letter to a man whose career was cut far too short. His work speaks for itself and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to see them. The pictures may sometimes have resembled vacation snapshots of happy seniors dancing, flirting, sunning themselves or porch-sitting but every one of them captured so much more than a moment.

REASONS TO SEE: The photographs really have character. A very interesting chronicle of the evolution of Miami’s South Beach.
REASONS TO AVOID: This is definitely a niche film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sweet did a series of city government employees shortly before his death. One of the subjects turned out to be the police detective who would investigate his murder.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Smash His Camera
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Patrick

Grace Jones: Bloodlight + Bami


Nobody owns the stage like Grace Jones.

(2017) Music Documentary (Kino-Lorber) Grace Jones, Jean-Paul Goude, Sly Dunbar. Directed by Sophie Fiennes

At 70, Grace Jones remains what she always has been – a fashion innovator, an icon in the LGBTQ community, a fierce personality and an unparalleled performer. Although she did a 1985 documentary on herself, that was much more of a concert film.

Jones throughout her career has been deliberately enigmatic, meticulously maintaining her image which is intimidating and alluring at once, the very pinnacle of androgyny combining performance artist and disco diva. In her heyday she was one of the most successful artists specializing in club music and yet few but her most devoted fans (and most of her fans are, to be fair, devoted) knew much about her background.

You won’t learn much here either. Fiennes follows the legend as she records her most recent reggae-tinged album in her home country of Jamaica where she was born – her family are prominently featured. At home, she affects a Jamaican patois which is largely missing from her speech now although it must be said that she adopts the accent of wherever she is – an upper class British lilt when in London, a slightly French twang in Paris and upstate New York (she grew up from age 13 near Syracuse) when in the States.

All that aside, Jones has had the kind of career that has been influential far beyond her own immediate circle and further beyond the confines of any catwalk, concert hall or movie. She deserves a definitive documentary but let’s face it; we may never get to see one and this one certainly isn’t it. I will grant it’s far more revealing about her background than any other documentary I’ve seen on the lady but she is a difficult nut to crack. She doesn’t tolerate shit at all nor does she have to. She has never been particularly open about her background; while she sometimes complains here about the grind that comes with being a pop diva (she endures a particularly insulting music video because as she reminds us, the fees she gets for it will pay for the entire album she’s recording. While she is clearly adored by her fans (most but not all of whom are gay) and she is more or less accessible to them, she also keeps her distance as well.

It doesn’t help that Fiennes has delivered a fairly disjointed documentary that jumps from place to place, inserts concert footage (which is the best part of the film by the way) and almost never gives any particular insight as to who Grace Jones is. She also fails to identify nearly anyone who appears onscreen, whether backing musicians, dancers, family or friends – hence the somewhat abbreviated cast list.

Yes, I get that she is the very definition of fierce and is not above confrontations when she thinks they are needed; I get that she is spiritually connected to her family and her homeland; I get that she enjoys the larger-than-life limelight and the persona that she’s carefully crafted over the years. But what lies behind the excessive masks and hats, the glitter and the make-up, the long model legs (that are still as long and as beautiful as ever)? We don’t get even a glimpse and that’s what I really wanted to see.

REASONS TO GO: The performance footage is compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: The direction is somewhat haphazard. One gets the sense that the director wasn’t sure what she wanted to say.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fiennes is the sister of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grace Jones: State of Grace
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Cold War

Keep the Change


This isn’t your usual romantic walk on the boardwalk.

(2017) Romance (Kino-Lorber) Brandon Polansky, Samantha Elisofon, Jessica Walter, Will Deaver, Tibor Feldman, Nicky Gottlieb, Christina Brucato, Sondra James, Jennifer Brito, Jonathan Tchaikovsky, Tommy Beardmore, Alex Emmanuel, Luke Rosen, Charlton Lamar, Anna Suzuki, Mary Cassera, Evander Duck Jr., Lori Burch, Kennedy Hall, Yvanna Barktidy. Directed by Rachel Israel

 

Some movies are for everybody. Some movies are not. Some come easily to any audience. Others require patience. This film is one of the latter.

David (Polansky) is a man who yearns to be normal. He has some quirky mannerisms, the most glaring being his propensity to tell inappropriate jokes. Most are funny only in the abstract – “Why did the bum vote for Obama? He wanted CHANGE! Haw haw haw!” However, this mannerism has gotten him into trouble on a number of occasions, repelling first dates with jokes about rape and more to the point, making jokes about pigs to a cop. This lands him, very unwillingly, at the Connections program at the Jewish Community Center in New York in which people on varying degrees of the Autism spectrum are given the opportunities to socialize in a safe environment.

David isn’t having it. He’s just “passing through” as he tells one of the participants and is sure that he is far better than the weirdos (his word) that make up the program. However, he is paired up with the somewhat outgoing Sarah (Elisofon) who might break into song with little encouragement and who mostly communicates through clichés and aphorisms. This annoys David at first but when she proclaims that David is “real real smoking hot and sexy,” he takes notice.

This isn’t a match necessarily made in heaven; her affections towards other guys drive David crazy as he wants a normal girlfriend. David’s casual cruelty hurt Sarah to the core but often she is able to scrunch up and just keep going, having learned to endure anything the world can dish out at her. Autism patients often must in order to survive.

The plot isn’t anything to write home about. It’s standard rom-com stuff but of course with a difference; rather than attractive young indie types or Hollywood A-listers, the actors are mostly autistic themselves. Israel is to be applauded for this and as a card carrying lefty I have to give the movie points for this. That doesn’t excuse the movie for going the predictable route though.

I get that the intent seemed to be reminding us that for all the quirks and tics of the autistic they are just like us, and it’s a great message to send. Am I sure that Israel was 100% successful in getting that across? Well, no. I think I have to be careful here because I’m not trying to say that those with autism don’t have stories to tell; of course they do. I can only though react to what I see onscreen and I wasn’t altogether satisfied. Some of the plot points felt a little bit contrived and considering all the trouble the actors and filmmakers went to in making this as authentic as possible they seemed to sabotage their own film in that sense.

Elisofon is absolutely charming. She is guileless and if her character is a bit on the sexy Pollyanna side, there’s nothing wrong with that. You won’t find a character like her anywhere in the movies. Polansky has a much more difficult job; his character is largely selfish and unlikable and it is his character who has to undergo the most change during the course of the film. That’s not always the easiest thing to embrace for any actor. There will be times that he says and does things however that will make most viewers cringe. Even when the person who says something cruel has autism, it still hurts when he or she says it. David doesn’t see himself as autistic or if he does, as one who is above all the others in Connections. He wears sunglasses everywhere and when he gets flustered he makes a loud honking noise that’s a cross between a sneeze and clearing the throat and has his share of insecurities. His overbearing mother (Walter) likely contributes to that smug sense of self-importance. David’s family is wealthy which largely insulates him but his mother wants him to have a “normal” wife, one who can take care of him after his parents are gone. The thought of him pairing up with someone else who is autistic is about the most terrifying thing she can imagine.

There are some moments that will genuinely tug at the heartstrings and those folks who have some contact with the autistic community – whether or not a family member or friend – will look upon this film fondly. The rest of us will likely have to accept that this is an imperfect movie and be okay with that once we decide to pull the trigger and give it a view. One certainly has to applaud the efforts to bring this community onto the screen where they have largely been rendered supporting cast members or stereotypes. This is a breath of fresh air in that regard albeit one that could have used a bit of air freshener. There will be those who don’t have the patience to see this through to the end – and while the first instinct will be to look down on those people as bad people, I find myself having a hard time doing that. After all, asking those who have limitations to go beyond them is no easy task and just because some folks will have as hard a time with this as a certain segment will have with Love, Simon is not a reason for scorn; it’s an opportunity for education.

REASONS TO GO: There are some occasional moments of the warm fuzzies.
REASONS TO STAY: Not everyone will have the patience to watch this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won the Best Narrative Feature award and Israel won the Best New Narrative Director award at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best and Most Beautiful Things
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Maineland

Pop Aye


Never get between a man and his elephant.

(2017) Drama (Kino Lorber) Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Bong, Chaiwat Khumdee, Naronng Pongpab, Yukontorn Sukkijja. Directed by Kirsten Tan

Sometimes we get feelings in our lives that threaten to overwhelm us, feelings we just can’t ignore. They become the elephant in the room, that feeling like we don’t fit in any longer or never fit in, that life has somehow managed to pass us by. Sometimes it takes a desperate action to get our lives back in order.

Thana (Warakulnukroh) is an architect who no longer feels at home in the firm he helped put on the map. Once a brilliant, bright shining future, he designed Gardenia Square, a shopping center which is now slated for demolition a mere twenty years after it was built. The son of his former boss now runs things and has replaced most of the architects with younger men who look at Thana as something of a dinosaur whose only use is to provide files.

Things are bad at home as well. His wife Bo (Sirikul) no longer seems attracted to Thana – and to be fair, his attempts at seduction are mostly awkward. Bo lives to shop and while her husband was a well-respected architect, there were plenty of things to buy. These days she knows she’s married to a man widely regarded as a fool and their marriage is a shell that isn’t going to last much longer. She seems shallow when we first meat her but as the movie goes on we see that there are heretofore hidden depths that explain her actions somewhat.

One day in the streets of Bangkok Thana spies an elephant (Bong) who he believes to be the elephant that he once had as a boy in the village of Loei, some 300 miles northeast of Bangkok. Nicknamed Popeye after a favorite cartoon of his as a youth (he trained the elephant to do the “toot toot” at the end of the “I’m Popeye the sailor man” theme), the elephant is mostly a means of making a quick buck for the mahout that owns him. Wanting more for his beloved elephant, Thana buys him on the spot and tries to bring him home but Bo is not having it.

Instead, Thana who has grown tired and disillusioned with city life decides to return to Loei where Thana’s Uncle Peak (Pongpab) will care for the creature. He and Popeye begin a journey from the bustling city of Bangkok into rural Thailand where they will meet a bevy of eccentric characters, including a transgender woman named Jenny (Sukkijja) who Thana treats with some compassion and who eventually gets a chance to return the favor, Dee (Khumdee), a gregarious homeless man living in an abandoned gas station who knows that his days are numbered but only regrets having left the love of his life whom he wishes to connect with one last time and a pair of officious police officers who are trying to move Thana and Popeye to the police station for “violating urban tidiness” even though the cops encounter the two on a road in the middle of nowhere.

All of these encounters serve to help Thana grow into a different man, one at peace with the disappointments of his life. While it may be true, as Thomas Hardy once put it, that you can never go home again, Thana finds out the secret to life; home is where you are at.

Tan was born in Singapore and has lived in a variety of places including Thailand where she worked as a t-shirt vendor on the streets of Bangkok. Now based in New York after attending the Tisch School of Visual Arts, she has made several impressive shorts. This is her feature-length film debut and it is a strong one. The movie has a gentle kind of surrealism to it that makes of unusual situations a kind of normality that makes them more palatable to the viewer. There is a sense of humor throughout but it is a gentle one, more of a chuckle than a guffaw at the ridiculousness of life.

The cast is mainly unprofessional but they do a fair enough job in conveying the various eccentricities of the various characters involved.  Warakulnukroh, a former progressive rock musician, manages to convey the puzzlement of Thana as he moves through a life that has left him behind. I don’t get the sense that he’s trying to adjust very much; he seems to be fairly bothered by the situation but doesn’t seem too motivated to change things until Popeye shows up. Khumdee also has some quiet moments that are compelling in his all-too-brief appearance here.

Most important here is the elephant and he is more expressive than a lot of human actors I’ve seen. I’ve never had the privilege of looking directly into the eyes of an elephant but there is a wisdom and sadness locked in those pachyderm eyes, an emotion that conveys empathy for the plight of Thana and by extension, himself. In many ways, Popeye is our avatar, marching slowly and resolutely towards an end that is pre-ordained but not necessarily without surprise. It is indeed the journey and not the destination since we’re all headed the same way anyway.

The movie is pretty slow-paced and might have benefited from some shorter more concise scenes particularly in the middle third. Keep in mind that an elephant never gets anywhere from anywhere else quickly so your best bet is to sit back and just enjoy the ride and that’s really good advice for watching any movie like Pop Aye. Allow it to wash over you and immerse you in its gently skewed universe. The ending is a little unexpected which is most appreciated, and you never really know what’s around the next bend in the road. All good journeys are like that.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a low-key sense of humor. The elephant is a keeper.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a touch too long and may be too slow-paced for some viewers. Some characters just fade from the movie without explanation.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tan won the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first filmmaker from Singapore to win an award at the prestigious event.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walkabout
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: I Don’t Feel at Home In this World Anymore

As I Open My Eyes (À peine j’ouvre les yeux)


Rocking out, Tunisian style.

Rocking out, Tunisian style.

(2015) Drama (Kino-Lorber) Baya Medhaffar, Ghalia Benali, Montassar Ayari, Lassad Jamoussi, Aymen Omrani, Deena Abdelwahed, Youssef Soltana, Marwen Soltana, Najoua Malhouthi, Younes Ferhi, Fathi Akkeri, Saloua Mohamed, Kais Klaia, Touafik Hammami, Wajdi Cherif, Jamil Najjar, Walid Ben Khlifa, Mourad Garsali, Mhadheb Rmili, Nacib Barhoumi, Habib Ghzel. Directed by Leyla Bouzid

 

In the fire of youth we sometimes find the seeds of change. In 2010, Tunisia was ruled by the despotic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who controlled the citizenry through fear; secret police regularly seized citizens and police informants meant you never knew who to trust. Any sort of criticism of the regime was unthinkable.

Farah (Medhaffar) is an 18-year-old girl with a bright future. She had been accepted into medical school, which made her mother Hayet (Benali) extraordinarily proud as well as her father (Jamoussi) who works in the mines in Gafsa where those seeds of revolution are beginning to bloom.

But Farah has a voice and she’s a member of a band along with her boyfriend Borhéne (Ayari), a sensitive hipster sort who writes most of the lyrics and plays the lute – a Tunisian guitar. He encourages her to do her own thing, which in a repressive conservative culture like that of Tunisia is unheard of for women.

As Farah grows more independent, she and her mother become more at odds. Hayet is concerned that her daughter is throwing away her future for transitory pleasures, plus she hears from an ex-lover who now is a sleazy government functionary that her daughter is drinking in men-only bars and has been seen making out with her boyfriend. Hayet reacts as most mothers would, forbidding her daughter from continuing her music career. Like most daughters, Farah ignores her mother.

Borhéne has written some pretty subversive lyrics for Farah to sing and she sings them passionately; the music attracts the attention of the police who begin following the members of the band and engaging in subtle intimidation. The pressures begin to take their toll on Farah whose relationship with Borhéne begins to fray. As Tunisia inches closer to revolution, Farah treads on dangerous grounds but like a dancer on thin ice continues to pirouette even as the ice cracks beneath her.

Taking place a few months before the Jasmine Revolution would oust Ben Ali from power Bouzid has crafted an energetic, life-filled movie that carries with it the passions of the young and perhaps the naiveté of the young as well. Farah is willful, sometimes to a fault and her idealism clashes with the conservatism of her mother. As the film goes on, we begin to realize that Farah and Hayet are much more alike than not and it is their relationship that is surprisingly at the center of the film, not that of Borhéne and Farah.

There is some misogyny present here and Bouzid approaches it directly and without rancor; it is part of the culture that women don’t have the same rights and the same dreams as men. There is one point where at a party that Farah is dancing joyously with the male members of the band that Borhéne takes exception to; “You’re embarrassing me,” he growls before stalking off to flirt with another woman, perhaps to infuriate his girlfriend – which it does. These are the games of the young, are they not?

And yet Bouzid is not unsympathetic; the men here are mainly victims of their own upbringing but still, she doesn’t sugarcoat the hypocrisy of the attitudes towards women. She remembers well the fear-ridden society that was Tunisia in those days and recreates the furtive looks, the fearful glances, the body language of a population rigid with worry. It is something most of us can’t really understand because there is no understanding it if you haven’t lived it for yourself; consequently some of the actions of the characters here may seem confusing or difficult to understand to American viewers.

The music is important and I have to admit I dug it. It combines Arab Mezwed with rock, propelling the seductive sounds with a rock beat and a kind of club attitude. There are also the lyrics which while flowery in the style of Arab poetry but describe the frustration of those living under the boot of a tyrant. The one complaint I have is that there are too many musical interludes; the film might have benefitted from cutting one or two of them (the songs are largely played through to completion which might be a bit of a shock to impatient American audiences who are generally given just snippets of performances in movies).

However, it must also be said that Medhaffar lights up in the stage sequences. Her smile is energetic and contagious. Her curly hair flies up from her head like a grenade going off and her body writhes sensually onstage. She is pretty enough an actress; in these sequences she’s beautiful. Benali is better known in Tunisia as a singer but she delivers an emotionally charged performance that in many ways is more resonant than that of Medhaffar. There’s a sequence when Benali is distraught and looking for her daughter in a bus station; it captures the love and the despair of parenthood that is universal to anyone who has a kid.

The movie takes place in places that aren’t found in the guidebooks of Tunis. It is seedy at times but in an unapologetic way, much like American movies that take place in bars and taverns. It is not a part of our culture that we’re proud of but it is part of our culture nonetheless. Bouzid is most certainly an appealing voice and while her debut feature film isn’t perfect, it is striking and leads me to look forward to her upcoming films. This is a director to keep an eye on.

REASONS TO GO: The film is full of life and energy. Medhaffar really sparkles on stage. It is gratifying to see a movie set in the day to day of Tunisia.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is on the slow side. Some of the subtleties of Tunisian culture are lost on American audiences which may lead to some confusion. Too many musical numbers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and brief partial nudity, a bit of profanity, some drug use and a ton of smoking and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was inspired by actual events in the life of Bouzid, who founded a cinema club during the Ben Ali era and discovered that one of her closest friends in it was a police informer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Juno
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Imperium