Epicentro


The color and chaos that is Havana.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Florida Project


Get ready for your close-up, Orlando.

(2017) Drama (A24) Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Karren Karagulian, Sandy Kane, Jim R. Coleman, Carl Bradfield, Mela Murder, Josie Olivo, Shalil Kamini Ramcharan, Kit Sullivan, Andrew Romano, Kelly Fitzgerald, Betty Jeune, Aiden Malik, Krystal Gordon, Cecilia Quinan. Directed by Sean Baker

 

It’s no secret that life isn’t easy. Making ends meet, particularly for young single mothers, is a constant struggle. Sometimes that struggle can take place in sight of the happiest places on earth, lending a particular poignancy to things.

6-year-old Moonie (Prince) and her mom Haley (Vinaite) live in the Magic Castle Motel, a budget motel on the 192 corridor near Disney World in a suburb of Orlando. The motel is managed by Bobby (Dafoe) whose rough edges sometimes mask the good heart he has underneath it all. Haley is unemployed, a former stripper who barely is able to make ends meet and the weekly rent for the hotel room is nearly always late. Mooney has a coterie of friends, most notably Jancey (Cotto) from the neighboring Tomorrowland Motel and Scooty (Rivera) whose mom Gloria (Kane) works at the nearby Waffle House, supplying Moonie and Haley with free food and also happens to be Haley’s best friend.

Moonie pretty much has free rein to do whatever she likes, be it throw water balloons at tourists, venture out to the nearby farmland for a “safari,” and hurl profane epithets at sunbathing elderly women. Sometimes, she and Scooty pick up extra cash by carrying the luggage of tourists to their rooms. The reality of her situation is probably lost on Moonie; for all she knows this is how everybody lives. Still, she has an active imagination and if she is a bit on the wild side, it can be forgiven.

That wild behavior can be explained by Haley who is herself amoral, crude and immature. Haley spends her days reselling perfume and expensive resorts (illegally) and when that scheme goes sideways, selling her body while Moonie takes a bath in the adjoining bathroom. She also robs some of her clients from time to time reselling their Magic Bands at discount ticket places.

Haley always seems to be just barely keeping their heads above water but the tide is definitely coming in and it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes. What will happen to Moonie if it does?

Those of my acquaintance who have seen the movie are sharply divided regarding their opinions of it. Nearly everyone agrees – including the critics who seem to be pretty much in unison with their praise for the film – that the first 45 minutes and the last 20 minutes are some of the best moments in filmmaking you’ll see this year. The final scene however is where that divide comes in. Some say that it comes out of left field and completely ruins the movie. Others say that it is tonally perfect and makes a great film into a potential classic.

Count me in the latter camp. That’s pretty much all I’ll say about the ending, other than that it is consistent with the tone of the movie and if you understand that this movie isn’t about Haley as much as it is about Moonie you might be able to make peace with that final scene.. I know that for a few minutes I had many of the same complaints about that ending until I thought about it for a few minutes and then realized that it fits perfectly with the movie’s theme which has a lot to do with deliberately shielding yourself from the harsh realities of life.

The performances here are simply amazing. Prince is a revelation; this is simply put one of the best juvenile performances caught on film ever. Some of the language that comes out of her mouth is salty but it feels natural considering how the adults around her speak and how the circumstances around her warrant it. Be that as it may, Moonie is full of herself, more than a little wild and absolutely fearless – until very near the end when she reveals that under all the bravado she is still a little girl and that comes through during a poignant scene as things start to fall apart. Although I suspect Prince will have her choice of little girl roles if she wants them, she might be better advised to retire now. It’s hard to imagine her ever equaling this performance.

Dafoe is a veteran who has some memorable performances of his own to his credit and this is one of the most sympathetic portrayals of his career. He often plays characters with fairly hard edges; here those edges are still there but we see a lot more of the soft interior than we normally do with Dafoe. He watches the train wreck that is Haley and Moonie with appropriately sad eyes.

The performance that not as many critics are talking about belongs to Vinaite. She is flat-out brilliant. Whenever Haley takes her daughter off motel property, you instinctively wonder what fresh nightmare is about to unfold. It is cinema of the rubberneck variety, the phenomenon of drivers craning their necks to get a better look at an accident as they drive past. One has to remember that Haley is little more than a child herself, the tattoos and drugs and men a testament to the bad choices she’s made over the years. Critically, one doesn’t see or hear referred to any immediate family for Haley; other than Moonie, she’s on her own. It’s no shock then that her values are the values of the street, of survival.

It’s early in the awards season and there are plenty of highly regarded projects that still have yet to make it into the theaters but this has to be strongly in the running for at least a Best Picture nomination and maybe more. This is definitely a must-see if it is playing in an art house near you and if not, make every effort to see it when it comes out on VOD or home video. This is certainly one of the best pictures of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The performances here are wonderful, particularly by Prince, Dafoe and Vinaite. The cinematography is colorful and magical. This is the story of people literally living on the ragged edge.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is sharply divisive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual content, adult themes and drug material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although most of the film was shot on 35mm, the final scene was shot on an iPhone without the knowledge or consent of those in charge of the location where it takes place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 91//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Motel Life
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Novitiate

Paris, je t’aime


Paris je t'aime

This annoying Parisian mime has his poor woman beside herself.

(First Look) Juliette Binoche, Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe, Gerard Depardieu, Marianne Faithfull, Ben Gazzara, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, Olga Kurlyenko, Emily Mortimer, Nick Nolte, Natalie Portman, Miranda Richardson, Gena Rowlands, Barbet Schroeder, Rufus Sewell, Leonor Watling, Elijah Wood. Directed by Many, Many Directors

Ah, Paris, the City of Light. No other city in the world conjures romance and civilization the way the capital of France does. Visions of sidewalk cafes, the Left Bank, the beautiful architecture and the masterpieces at the many museums make Paris a city where one’s oeuvre for the finer things in life can be properly exercised.

But like any city its size, Paris has more than just one face and more than just one personality. Paris has many neighborhoods, some ethnically arranged and others more lifestyle arranged. One of the joys of exploring Paris is to delve into these neighborhoods, not all of which turn up in guidebooks.

Some of them, however, appear here in this love letter to and from Paris. 18 vignettes have been directed by some of the world’s best directors (or teams, such as the Coen Brothers) like Gus van Sant and Isabel Coixet. Appearing in them is a tremendous international cast, some of whom (but not all) are detailed above.

Each vignette is set in a different neighborhood in Paris and all have something to do with love, which is fitting enough. As with any anthology film of this nature, the segments work to varying degrees but I have to say that I can’t honestly say that any of them are horrible.

The only one that really feels jarring to me is the one directed byVincenzo Natali, whose “Quartier de la Madeleine” is a Gothic vampire romance, with Bond girl Olga Kurlyenko chasing Elijah Wood through fog-shrouded streets. The tone differs from any of the other films here and it felt more like a Parisian Twilight episode which didn’t really work for me.

Other than that one misstep, there is some magnificent work here. In Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa’s “Place de Victoires,” a grieving mother (played with astonishing power by Juliette Binoche) gets a chance to say goodbye to her dead son as given by a cowboy (Willem Dafoe) who is acting not unlike Charon on the River Styx, escorting the boy to his final destination. It’s the most powerful segment in the movie in many ways.

Another wonderful piece is “Quartier Latin” by actor Gerard Depardieu and co-director Frederic Aubertin (who also directed the linking segments). Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands, veterans of the John Cassavetes stable, play an aging couple who get together the night before they see the lawyer to finalize their divorce. It is bittersweet without being cloying, a tribute to the two actors who pull off some of the more understated work of the movie.

In a different vein, the Coen Brothers direct their Steve Buscemi in the ”Tuileries” segment for slapstick comedy, as a mute tourist is warned not to make eye contact in the Metro station and foolishly does, twice, leading to all sorts of mayhem being perpetrated on Buscemi, who takes more abuse from the Coens than he has since “Fargo.” The Coens do this kind of thing as well as anybody ever has.

Even horror director Wes Craven gets a shot, with his set in the cemetary at “Pere Lachaise” features Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell as an engaged couple scouring the cemetary for the grave of Oscar Wilde, with Sewell getting romantic advice from the ghost of the writer himself. While this sounds on the surface to be right in Craven’s wheelhouse, it’s actually a bit of a departure for him, being much more romantic than we’re used to from the auteur of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream franchise.

The great Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron does a stunning job with “Parc Monceau,” shooting the segment in one long continuous shot, allowing Nick Nolte to do his thing as a doting father trying to maintain a bond with his daughter. In “Pigalle,” director Richard LaGravenese need do nothing more than film a conversation slash argument between married couple Bob Hoskins and the extraordinarily sophisticated and beautiful Fanny Ardant.

Alexander Payne of Sideways fame directs the concluding vignette, “14th Arrondissement” with superb character actress Margo Martindale narrating the effect a trip to Paris had on the life of a frumpy Midwestern postal worker. It’s a sweet little coda that ties things together nicely.

As I said, not everything works but most work well enough to be reasonably satisfying and all have at least something to recommend them. All in all, it’s a pleasant little pastry that has been put together with loving care by many of the best chefs in the business, and it’s ready for you to sample and I recommend that you do, even if you don’t love Paris but especially if you do.

WHY RENT THIS: A cornucopia of wonderful vignettes about the City of Light with something of a tasting menu of some of the finest film directors in the world.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the segments flat-out don’t work.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some bad language, a bit of sexuality (it is Paris after all), a few mildly frightening moments and some adult themes. While there’s nothing really that you wouldn’t let your children watch, they would probably be bored to tears unless they’re Francophiles.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original intention of the movie was for each segment to represent a specific arrondissement in Paris (there are 20 in all) but this idea was abandoned.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: In the special edition 2-disc DVD Steelbox edition of the film, there are 18 featurettes, each devoted to a specific segment of the movie. Oddly, these aren’t available on the Blu-Ray making it a rare instance where a DVD edition has more extras than the corresponding Blu-Ray edition.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Paris 36 (Faubourg 36)