Life, Above All (Le secret de Chanda)


Determination mixed with sadness.

Determination mixed with sadness.

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane, Harriet Manamela, Lerato Mvelase, Tinah Mnumzana, Aubrey Poolo, Mapaseka Mathebe, Thato Kgaladi, Kgomotso Ditshweni, Rami Chuene, Jerry Marobyane, Tshepo Emmanuel Nonyane, Johanna Refilwe Sihlangu, Vusi Muzi Given Nyathi, Patrick Shai, Nelson Motloung, Ernest Mokoena, Mary Twala. Directed by Oliver Schmitz

Here in America, AIDS isn’t the same issue it used to be. Advancements in pharmaceuticals and care have given many their lives. It’s a different story in other places

Chanda (Manyaka) is a bright 12-year-old girl in the Elandsdoorn township near Johannesburg, South Africa but this day she is far from happy – she’s picking out a coffin for her baby sister. Her mother is too overcome with grief to do it and her father is too busy drinking and hanging out with floozies to do it. Not long after the funeral, her mother (Mvelase) takes ill and is sent away.

This leaves Chanda with younger sisters who basically don’t want anything to do with her and a sympathetic neighbor Mrs. Tafa (Manamela) keeping an eye on them. Chanda’s best friend Esther (Makanyane) has taken to prostituting herself to truck drivers in order to survive – she has been orphaned as both her parents passed away from AIDS.

Meanwhile in the township rumors are starting to circulate and whispers that Chanda is cursed – sickness seems to revolve in the air around her. Chanda needs answers and the only person who can supply them is her mother, so she sets off to find her. But be careful what questions you ask – you might not like the answers.

This is a searing, emotionally powerful movie that takes on AIDS and the way that sufferers of the disease are treating in Africa. There are those who ostracize and stigmatize the victims, as if they were to blame for  their illness. Chanda’s situation isn’t uncommon in South Africa – in Africa in general in fact.

Manyaka delivers an amazingly intuitive performance; as you can see above, her eyes are incredibly expressive and she fills the character of Chanda with plenty of energy and strength. Chanda as written is an impressive girl but I think Manyaka might just be as impressive. You don’t accomplish this kind of performance without real soul.

This isn’t always a pretty picture. There is some ugliness to how the villagers react and of course the situation is pretty grim in and of itself. The thought of 12 year old girls giving truckers blow jobs is absolutely outrageous to me, and yet it is a way of life for girls in that part of the world.

The ending is pretty upbeat despite the overwhelming despair that you would think is part of everyday life in Elandsdoorn (which is actually a pretty middle class suburb in many ways). The title can be interpreted in a few different ways (and is a bit of a clue to the denouement if you think about it) but for the girls in this movie, you can’t help but admire the strength of the African women here. It is a strength that seems to be part of their genetic make-up and it is nice to see it portrayed so positively even given the bleakness of the subject matter.

WHY RENT THIS: Astounding performances by the mainly local and inexperienced cast. Calls attention to the continuing stigmatization of AIDS victims.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Improbable ending.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are very adult in nature; there is also a bit of sexuality in the mix.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Canadian Dennis Foon adapted the screenplay from Allan Stratton’s novel Chanda’s Secrets.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $134,461 (domestic) on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunt

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Closed Circuit

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The Last Mistress (Une vieille maîtresse)


The Last Mistress

Asia Argento gets her Spanish on.

(2007) Drama (IFC) Asia Argento, Fu’ad Ait Aattou, Roxanne Mesquida, Claude Sarraute, Yolande Moreau, Michael Lonsdale, Anne Parillaud, Jean-Philippe Tesse, Sarah Pratt, Amira Casar, Lio, Isabelle Renauld, Lea Seydoux, Nicholas Hawtrey, Caroline Ducey. Directed by Catherine Breillat

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the human heart is a tricky thing. Not everything is easy to assess, quantify and analyze when it comes to human emotions. Not everything makes logical sense; we can only follow our feelings and hope they lead us on some sensible course that will arrive at our eventual happiness. It doesn’t always turn out that way though.

Ryno de Marigny (Aattou) is about to get married to the beautiful Hermangarde (Mesquida), granddaughter of the Marquise de Flers (Sarraute). It is 1835, during the reign of the last French King. Ryno has been a bit of a libertine so it turns more than a few heads and gets some tongues to wagging when the Marquise allows the engagement of her beloved granddaughter to such a notorious rake as Ryno, who is a son of a noble house but has fallen on hard times. The marriage to the wealthy Hermangarde is extremely advantageous to him.

The Marquise is fully aware of Ryno’s reputation however and invites him (more of a command actually) over one night to talk. She has heard of his most scandalous affair and wants to know if he has given the relationship up before he marries. She demands he tell her about the relationship in detail and so he does.

Ryno met La Vellini (Argento) at a party. By then she was married to the ineffectual Sir Reginald (Hawtrey) and was already an accomplished courtesan. At first they don’t take to each other; he calls her a mongrel for her Spanish-Italian heritage and she thinks of him as a haughty little boy. Then in fine romantic fashion the two who despise each other so much find themselves attracted as two lovers have never been. This leads to a duel between Ryno and Sir Reginald in which Ryno is gravely wounded. Of course, La Vellini flies to his side and nurses him to health, even sucking the blood from his wound so great is her passion for him.

This leads to a torrid affair that has all of Paris talking, particularly a pair of gossipers (Lonsdale and Moreau) who have a certain French flair for seeing the ridiculousness in their passion. Still Ryno knows that he must end the affair with La Vellini. However, La Vellini is the sort of woman who ends things on her terms – and at the moment her terms are far from having been met.

Based on what was at the time a scandalous novel by the French writer Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly written in 1851, noted French director Breillat has put together what is unusual for her, a period piece. Breillat is noted for her films that ooze sexuality but show sex in a more realistic fashion; there is sweat and not moisture, grunting and not moaning, bodies contorted into awkward shape and little grace. It is more like the act itself without the sentimentality that Hollywood (and yes, French films as well) depict the act with.

She also has a penchant for using non-professional actors and she’s spotted a good one in Aattou. His boyish looks are perfect for the role physically and his performance nicely recalls the actions and sentiments of a down-on-his-heel noble, mid-19th century style. As is not uncommon with European films, there is far more dialogue than in their American cousins and that is true particularly here with much of the action taking place in drawing rooms and Aattou handles the conversations well; they don’t seem forced.

Argento has been criticized for not being a great actress but I have found her to be a solid actress. I have yet to see a great performance from her true, but it is rare to see a truly bad performance from her either and she is quite good here. I honestly can’t fault her performance which is very sexually charged; even in the mannered environment of that time and that place, she comes off as highly sexual which is rare for movies which tend to make the people of that time kind of sexless. La Vellini would be a hot, sexy woman in any era.

The movie, like many European films, is paced at a rather slower pace than American audiences are used to so be aware of that. There are certainly some frenetic moments but for the most part younger audiences might not have the patience to sit through this.

Sarraute, who has been a journalist for some 50 years although was quite an accomplished actress at one time, makes a rare screen appearance of late and makes the most of it. I really enjoyed the warmth and depth she brought to the Marquise; as Roger Ebert so perceptively put it, she’s the kind of movie character whose salon you’d love to hang out in with her, just having conversations about the indignities of life.

Overall I really loved this movie a lot. It’s sexy but not pornographic – a movie about sexual obsession has to have some sex in it after all. But it’s the rich characterization of the main participants in the drama that held my attention; the plot is a bit on the soapy side but no matter. This is wonderful drawing room filmmaking at its very best.

WHY RENT THIS: Very sexy. Nice period piece. Sarraute, Argento and Aattou are mesmerizing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A very leisurely pace.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexuality and some brief nudity as well as a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director discovered Aattou in a Parisian cafe; up until that point he had no professional acting experience.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.8M on a $6M production budget; the movie didn’t make back its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Liaisons

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

Get Low


Get Low

Robert Duvall goes all Old Testament on an incredulous Lucas Black and a skeptical Bill Murray.

(Sony Classics) Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs, Scott Cooper, Lori Beth Edgeman, Linds Edwards, Andrea Powell, Chandler Riggs, Danny Vinson, Blerim Destani, Andy Stahl. Directed by Aaron Schneider

I think to a certain extent most of us would love to attend our own funerals. After all, it is a time when those who survive us think the best of us; who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall when their friends and loved ones are talking about us from the heart?

Felix Bush (Duvall) is a recluse living in the hills alone in a cabin that he built. All he has is a shotgun, his mule, a wad of cash and forty years of loneliness. One morning Rev. Horton (McRaney), a local pastor, calls on him to alert him that one of his old friends has passed on. Horton is a bit nervous and understandably so; Bush has a reputation for being violent, unpredictable and possibly even Satanic. Horton invites Bush to the funeral, but Felix brushes him off, making it unclear whether or not he’ll show. True to his mercurial nature, he arrives after everyone else has left.

Nonetheless that gets him thinking about his own mortality; he’s not a young man anymore, so he stops to see the good Reverend about arranging his own funeral with a bit of a twist – he wants it thrown while he’s still alive. Horton is a little taken aback by this and Felix storms out, but his proposal is overheard by Buddy Robinson (Black), the assistant to local funeral home director Frank Quinn (Murray).

When Frank hears about the incident from his underling, he is intrigued – by the size of the wad of cash Buddy says he has. Frank is originally from Chicago where, he tells Buddy sourly, people know how to die – they get hit by cars, shot by mobsters or drop down dead in the streets. “We know how to die hereabouts too,” drawls Buddy, “only we’re not in such a hurry to go about it.”

Frank, intimidated by Felix’ reputation, sends Buddy in to see if the hermit is still interested in throwing a funeral for himself and as it turns out, he is – and he and Buddy manage to establish a little bit of a bond. Frank brings Felix to town to work out some of the details – for instance, he wants the funeral to be open to “anybody who has a story to tell about me,” and to entice people to show up, allows people to sign up for a lottery for five dollars; the name that is drawn will inherit Felix’ land, with virgin timber rights and worth thousands of dollars. Felix begins to connect not only with Frank and Buddy, but with Mattie (Spacek), a widow with whom Felix once had a romantic relationship years and years prior.

As Felix begins to return to the world, it becomes clear that he has been holding onto a terrible secret for some forty years and it becomes even more clear that the funeral is not about Felix hearing what other people think about him (he really doesn’t give a damn what other people think) so much as for Felix to get this terrible burden off his chest. To that end, he wants the Reverend Charlie Jackson (Cobbs) to preach at his “funeral party,” mainly because he is the only man alive who knows Jackson’s secret. As the big day gets closer, Felix’ resolve begins to waver and Reverend Jackson shows no interest in helping Felix out. The funeral party is in jeopardy, which would ruin Frank’s business and put the young Buddy out of work, with a wife and new baby to feed.

Get Low

The real Felix "Uncle Bush" Breazeale at his "funeral party" in 1938.

Schneider has had some Oscar experience for some of the short films he’s directed; this is his first full-length feature and it’s an impressive one. The story is based on the real life Felix “Uncle Bush” Brezeale who threw himself a funeral in rural Tennessee in 1938. There was a Reverend Charlie Jackson who preached at that funeral, and as depicted here, there was also a musical ensemble that played for the entertainment of the large crowd that gathered.

However, most of the dramatic action is an invention, particularly concerning Felix’ past. Schneider couldn’t have chosen a better actor for the role than Duvall, one of America’s best living actors. Now pushing 80 years old, Duvall doesn’t appear onscreen nearly as often; this is by far the best role he’s had since 1997’s The Apostle although I saw a lot of his “Lonesome Dove” TV role as Gus McCrae in his Felix Bush – despite the differences in character between the gregarious Gus and the curmudgeonly Felix.

Duvall carries the film for certain, but he is equaled by Murray, who shows the same level of performance as he achieved in Lost in Translation. He plays Frank with typical drollness, delivered with the twinkle of a conman’s eye. Frank is a complicated sort who isn’t quite trustworthy, or at least doesn’t inspire that kind of trust, even among the fairly simple folk of the town. Murray excels at this kind of role, going back to Caddyshack and beyond. Mention needs to be made of Spacek, who gives some of her finest work of the past decade here in a very down-to-earth role. One forgets how good she can be; it’s been a very long time since Coal Miner’s Daughter but when she gets the right role, as she does here, Spacek is as good as they get.

Schneider also enlisted Emmy-winning cinematographer David Boyd (“Deadwood”) to capture the majesty of the hill country in autumn. It’s a beautiful looking film, full of rich browns, muted sepia tones and flickering firelight.

The big secret is a bit of a disappointment; it’s pretty much what you think it is, and an opening prologue will give you all the clues you need to figure it out if you watch carefully, but even given that, Duvall’s delivery of the speech where he discloses the reason he has lived in exile from humanity for 40 years is a powerful, memorable performance.

This is one of those happenstance movies where all the right elements come together and magic happens as a result. The film captures time and place and allows us to dwell there for a short while and on that level can be enjoyed thoroughly. There really isn’t a message here that I could detect other than to let go of your burdens before they become the only thing you can call your own. Still, that’s a plenty good message to me, to which I add another one; if Robert Duvall and Bill Murray are in a movie separately or together, that is a movie worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-worthy performances by Duvall and Murray, while Spacek does her best work in years. Beautiful cinematography of the Georgia hill country and a great sense of place and time make this a magic place to stop for a spell.

REASONS TO STAY: The big reveal of Felix’ secret is a little bit anti-climactic; most everyone will have figured out what it is long before then.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic material, having to do with the secret that Felix is holding onto, is probably a bit difficult for kids. There are a few swear words, but by and large this is suitable for teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie is loosely based on an incident that occurred in Roane County, Tennessee in 1938, it was filmed in Georgia and is set about ten years earlier.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the gorgeous cinematography deserves a big screen, I would normally say that this limited release gem will be just as nice on the home screen except that a movie like this deserves all the support it can get.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Paul Blart: Mall Cop