The General (El General) – A Review

The General is a documentary about Plutarco Elías Calles, the former President and revolutionary general. But in watching it you will not learn much about the man. Instead, what you learn is fleeting, brief, like the memories of his daughter whose voice describe what he and Mexico were like after the Revolution. The daughter’s memories and the bits of history that fill out his story are fragments of a larger story: the failure of the Revolution to live up to its promises.

The General is Calles’ great grand daughter’s attempt to discover who Calles was and what his legacy was. She looks not only at the historical sources, newspapers, her grandmother’s recorded memoirs, but the lives of the Mexicans in Mexico City. Did the brutality of his regime change anything? Did the Revolution itself change anything? The verdict is no. With 500,000 street vendors in Mexico City 80 years after his presidency, it is obvious what ever he left Mexico it didn’t work. The interviews with the people of Mexico City all come to one conclusion: nothing has changed and the rich still get away with everything while the poor still suffer.

The General is a must for anyone who is interested in Mexico. Although it isn’t a traditional history of Calles, the interweaving of history, memory and documentary makes for a good film.

Kanchivaram – A Review

Kanchivaram (A Communist Confession) is a beautiful and sad film, but not an oppressive film of endless sorrow. And despite the foreshadowing of doom that the frame story creates there is humor and a resolution, that dark, is in the end hopeful.

The SIFF guide describes the film quite well:

Every Indian bride dreams of wearing a delicate Kanchivaram sari on her wedding day, no matter her caste. On the day of his daughter’s “first feeding,” Vengadam (Prakash Raj) promises her one of the same expensive saris that he weaves daily for the highest caste in India. Despite resistance from the village community and fears that an unfulfilled promise will lead to a curse, Vengadam risks his livelihood to steal individual vivid silk threads from his workplace. Every night, he secretly and patiently weaves his daughter’s sari. As his daughter’s wedding day approaches, a communist activist initiates strikes against the mill owners, preventing Vengadam from completing the sari and from keeping his promise.

Ultimately, Vengadam, who is the leader of the strikers, ends the strike so he can finish the sari before his daughter’s wedding day. In doing so he breaks the bond between the two families and when the father of the groom attacks him for his cowardice in ending the strike, the mill owners discover he is stealing thread. He is sent to prison and only release for two days to see his daughter who has fallen down a well and is paralyzed. Seeing she has no future in a land that neither respects the poor, nor women, he poisons her. Although, he could not provide her the sari on her wedding day, he can provide it for her funeral. The last we see Vengadam he has sunk into madness and is pulling the silk sari that is to short to cover her whole body from her head to her feet over and over, unable to realize he came close to giving her a silk silk.

What makes the film intriguing besides its will written story is the politics of the film. Although they live in misery and poverty, Vengadam has a bicycle and they make enough to eat. They do not live in the starkest of poverty, yet they do earn much from their highly skilled labor. While the organizer is a communist and has pictures of Lenin the workers only are interested in forming a union or a cooperative. The workers suffer for months during the strike, some even die. Yet they are all committed to the strike. Vengadam suffers the least because he had a little money saved up. In a film with such political leanings, the locus of the film is in the personal and for Vengadam the personal is where one suffers. At the end of the film after Vengadam has gone mad, the film makers note that just a few years latter after independence, the state voted communists in and the workers formed cooperatives that exist today and pay the workers well.

Kanchivaram is part history and part political work. It borders on the misery of the poor, yet it is a film that is also of those who should not be poor, those have skills. So in this sense the film is tragic and hopeful at the same time. Sad for one family, but hopeful for the weavers as a whole. This mix distances the viewer some what from the brutality that comes from poverty and makes the film seem lighter than it should. Adding to this is the framing narrative of the bus ride which adds comedy. So after watching it you don’t have so much a sense of injustice exists, but it is too bad for that one family. That shift in focus makes the politics more subtle and ultimately the film more interesting.

Kanchivaram (A Communist Confession) is a beautiful and sad film, but not an oppressive film of endless sorrow. And despite the foreshadowing of doom that the frame story creates there is humor and a resolution, that dark, is in the end hopeful.

The SIFF guide describes the film quite well:

Every Indian bride dreams of wearing a delicate Kanchivaram sari on her wedding day, no matter her caste. On the day of his daughter’s “first feeding,” Vengadam (Prakash Raj) promises her one of the same expensive saris that he weaves daily for the highest caste in India. Despite resistance from the village community and fears that an unfulfilled promise will lead to a curse, Vengadam risks his livelihood to steal individual vivid silk threads from his workplace. Every night, he secretly and patiently weaves his daughter’s sari. As his daughter’s wedding day approaches, a communist activist initiates strikes against the mill owners, preventing Vengadam from completing the sari and from keeping his promise.

Ultimately, Vengadam, who is the leader of the strikers, ends the strike so he can finish the sari before his daughter’s wedding day. In doing so he breaks the bond between the two families and when the father of the groom attacks him for his cowerdice in ending the strike, the mill owners descover he is stealing thread. He is sent to prison and only release for two days to see his daughter who has fallen down a well and is paralized. Seeing she has no future in a land that neither respects the poor, nor women, he poisons her. Th

Stunning colors punctuate this strong Tamil-language narrative, where the setting acts as another character in the well-woven script. Though history contextualizes Kanchivaram it’s Vengadam’s strong desire that drives the film’s mystical tone and sensitive approach to the social realities of India’s caste structure.

Four Chapters – A Review

Four Chapters is one of those films where you have the feeling that you might have gotten just a bit more if you were from the country of origin. While meditative, well shot, and having a slow beauty, the spiritual search seems distant and troubled, as if something is missing. And perhaps that is the point—spiritual journeys are never easy.

Based on Rabindranath Tagore’s Four Chapters, Sachish is a young man who breaks with his father’s Hindu religious beliefs to follow his reformist uncle who is willing to feed poor Muslims, which scandalizes the family. When his brother’s young mistress becomes pregnant and is abandoned by him, Sachish offers to marry her to save her from the street. Again, it creates a scandal and the mistress kills herself before the wedding can occur. His uncle then begings a hospital, but soon sucumbs to a fever and dies, leaving Sachish grief stricken. He joins an ashram where he has given up all worldly attachment and follows a guru. Sachish’s friend comes to the ashram seeking to convince Sachish that the guru is a fraud, but, instead, he stays with Sachish to see if faith could be better than the skepticism of his uncle. While they are with the guru they meet Damini who is a widow and a ward of the guru. She sees Sachish and wants to break him free from his allegence to the guru and marry her. Although she tries, he is unwilling. Eventually, they leave the guru so Sachish can find an even deeper faith. Damini who has no other options marries Sachish’s friend who has grown attached to her. Damini and her husband return to the world of work while the last we see of Sachish he is staring at the sea watching singing Sufis walk by.

Four Chapters is even handed in the way it looks at faith. At first it seems as if the guru is going to be a corrupt man, more interested in the physical world than the spiritual. He does need money to run his ashram, but he doesn’t seem to spend it on himself. He is a patriarchal man who thinks women need to be taken care of and supervised. Instead, the criticism is aimed more at the rich families who invite in the gurus, pay them for personal advice, then continue their profligate lives. The gurus are just answering a call. This is why Sachish has to leave the ashram and find something even more spiritual, something that leaves the work of the guru behind. At the beginning of the movie it is Sachish’s father who is spiritual but also doesn’t want to have anything to do with poor Muslims. Sachish who first takes on the asceticism of social reform is natural upset by this and distances himself from his family. It this initial conflict that frames the search for spiritual meaning against the use of spiritualism as something to make you feel better about yourself.

Four Chapters is also interested in looking at how women are treated. Damini has no freedom. As a widow she is dependent of the guru who received her husbands estate, an estate which Damini’s father gave her. She becomes a prisoner in her own estate. To find freedom she must marry again. This is why she trys to attach herself to Sachish. Damini is in a similar position to the woman that Sachish was going to marry at the beginning of the film. She, too, didn’t have any options for life without a man.

Four Chapters is a good film that blends the search for spiritual faith with that of social criticism. It is interested in the subtleties of hypocrisy rather than out and out castigation. That stance makes it a subtle and, at times, slow. Nevertheless, it is worth seeing.

Inland – A Review

The mistake I made in selecting this film was not paying attention to the last line of the review which said the film ” compared to Antonioni.” Oh, the tedium for this loose (which is kind) and boring film. When you read the description below you might think it has potential but only when you get one hour into it do you even know why Malek is in the country side. But what was worse were all the long scenes of almost nothing, just the country side going by. Perhaps there was 20 minutes of dialog in over 130 minutes. Definitely not worth seeing. The only saving grace was the five minute Raï party, which gave you some idea how a traditional party might go. Otherwise not worth the time. If only someone had written a better movie to go along with the synopsis.

Malek is a reclusive topographer who accepts a commission to survey a remote part of western Algeria in order to extend the electrical grid. He arrives to find the area has been decimated by religious fundamentalists who have only recently cleared out. Malek meets the local police, the shepherds who are beginning to return, and villagers who invite him to a makeshift party. In the middle of the night, he is awakened by the sound of explosions. Not to worry, explains a local man. When the cicadas land in the sand, it’s enough to trigger off the buried booby-traps. But as Malek soon realizes, it isn’t cicadas setting off the mines, but refugees trying to reach the coast and a boat for Spain. The next day he finds a young woman, exhausted and terrified, hiding in a corner of his shack. Malek decides to drive her to the border, and together they set out toward some indeterminate vanishing point on the horizon. These present-day realities are interspersed with flashbacks to the idealistic political debates of his youth, and set against a soundtrack that mixes alternative rock, Nigerian Afrobeat, and Algerian Rai. With his minimalist approach to plot and dialogue, and mesmerizing cinematography, director Tariq Teguia has been compared to Antonioni. (from the SIFF site)

The Admiral – A Review

Picking a movie because it was the most expensive Russian film ever made may not be the best way to go. While the Admiral is full of epic battles, the mixing of the love story which seemed wooden and more foreordained than an element of discovery made the movie an epic cliché.

The Admiral is about Admiral Alexander Kolchak who was a Russian Admiral during World War I and after the revolution the supreme leader of the White army. Kolchak is a brave man and an expert naval officer whose prowess leads him to command the Baltic Fleet in the last days of World War I. He is a tough religious man who doesn’t hesitate to put himself in harm’s way. He is also a ladies man and the movie also follows his love affair with the wife of one of his junior officers. The mercurial romance is interspersed throughout the battle scenes and in time they can’t live without each other and she follows him to his eventual execution in 1920.

While the combat scenes were put together well and the opening naval battle is impressive, the film is more concerned with the epic than the characters. It seemed as if the film makers had a series of known historical moments they needed to show but didn’t understand how to create characters to make those moments flow together. History didn’t move the characters against a back drop of action; instead, history moved action against a backdrop of characters. If there were less battles and more scenes between the characters, the story might have held together better. Considering how much time the film makers spent following a Cossack army that was going to save the Admiral, it is obvious that the epic was more important. It is even more obvious when they had his lover read letters out loud while showing combat scenes, making a perverse and clichéd mix of love and war.

Looking at the film as a product of Russia and not just an epic, it becomes obvious that there is a certain amount of hagiography at work in the film. Kolchak is a fervent nationalist and a man who believes in a strong hand on government. When offered the command of navy from Kerensky he says only if he can have strict discipline. In combat he fearlessly leads his men putting himself where he could be killed and leading them in prayer before each battle. He is the perfect mix of the ideal non Soviet Russian: brave, religious, and strict. What is even more interesting is what is missing from the movie: his insistence on exterminating rebellious groups; his execution of 25,000 Russians who rebelled against him; his inability to keep his allies, the Checs and the Poles on his side. Instead of a complicated picture of yet another Russian dictator, the film makers have created a hero of the lost cause. In Putin’s Russia, perhaps this is the model of the new Russian hero.

While the Admiral is steeped in clichés, it is certainly put together well and is an interesting look into what Russia thinks of its past.

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Animated Enemies with James Forsher

This could have been better if the technical problems that kept the films from playing hadn’t happened. Instead, only 4 or so American propaganda cartoons were shown, most of which I could have seen on the Internet. Forsher knows his stuff and has some interesting things to say, but it wasn’t really worth the price and I would have liked more cartoons. We did get the chance to see two Private SNAFU cartoons that used racist imagery, and one Warner Brothers called Tokyo Jokio which is full of terrible caricatures. He also show the first animated short ever filmed and the ending that is seldom seen which features Jewish and African American caricatures. I think I would have preferred more from WWII and a little less talking, but so goes the SIFF.

The Maid – A Review

The Maid is one of those claustrophobic movies that seldom roams into varied locations and keeps to one character almost all the time, yet feels open and finds in the littlest of actions an expansive interior world. The interior world for the viewer, though, is a mystery, because it is unverbalized. The Maid is a visual movie, almost seeming like a narratorless documentary. It is in the subtle scenes and excellent acting of the actor who plays Raquel that makes the anything but dry.

As the movie opens that employs Raquel is trying to celebrate her 40th birthday.  She is unwilling to celebrate it with them, though. Is she shy, or afraid? It is not clear. What is obvious is she is a quiet, pensive character. She goes about her work quickly and efficiently, but also disturbs the older daughter while sleeping in a fit of vindictiveness. She protests to the mother of the family about bringing in another maid to helper, saying she has always taken care of the family for 20 years. When a maid is brought in anyway, she locks her out of the house. When another maid is brought in she locks her out of the house too. Through all this strange behavior, though, the family keeps her. Finally, though, what ever was bothering her leads to her collapse and she ends up in the hospital driven in a panic by the family as if she was their own child. While she is in the hospital the family brings in a new maid, Lucy. Lucy is unlike the other maids and when Raquel returns to work and tries to lock her out of the house instead of trying to get back in the house, begins to nude sunbathe. It breaks the ice between them and they soon become friends and Raquel goes with her to her family’s farm for Christmas, something it is implied she hadn’t done since she’d lived with the family. When Lucy leaves, Raquel is disappointed, but instead of retreating into her old shell, takes up one of Lucy’s hobbies, jogging. As the movie ends Raquel is running down a street in listening to music and dressed just like Lucy when she went jogging.

Raquel is a mystery. What is bothering her and why is she taking it out on the family? What is apparent is her need for a wider experience, not so much in adventures in the world, but among friends. She has lived with a very paternal family that appreciates her, but does constrain her. She has lived with them for 20 years and has known almost nothing else. She is cut off from her family for a reason that  is never explained but obviously bothers her. She is part child that has never grown moving into the family at 20 and a perfectionist who can no longer stand the exactitude. When she goes to Lucy’s she goes to bed with Lucy’s uncle but is unable to consummate the night probably because it is outside her experience. Moreover, the family she lives with is very religious with crucifixes in every room and prayers every night. Between her youth, her inexperience and the family she lives with, she is struggling to grow up. When Lucy comes, she presents a new avenue, not just another maid just like her. The final scene of the film is of Raquel taking on not only the persona of Lucy, but a new persona that is free of the house and her past.

The even handedness of the film as it finds Raquel and Raquel finds herself is what makes the film so good. It is a search without the conventions of search; a movie of self discovery without the clichés of self discovery. It is a movie where the questions you are left with will begin the search and extend the film beyond the theater—the mark of a good film.

Apron Strings – A Review

Apron Strings is a family and identity drama from New Zealand that tells the story of two families, one of British origin and the other Indian. Mixing food and the questions of identity, Apron Strings is a nice, if some what light, film that explores broader topics of identity through the familiar.

The British family has worked in the same neighborhood for years and watched it change and become more multi-ethnic. The proprietor of the shop, a woman of 62 years, is frustrated by the changes, particularly the garlic that comes from the shop next door. The proprietor’s son is a gambling addict who is in hock to the owner of a Vietnamese bakery who wants to buy his mother’s shop. At the same time, her daughter has just become a single mother, giving birth to a black baby, which does not please her. Eventually, the mother realizes that her son has to be kicked out of the house because he is only taking advantage of her. Despite the problems with her son she is able to reconcile with her daughter.

The Indian family is composed of two sisters, one who has a curry shop and is part of the Sikh community, but still single at 40, and the other who is a famous TV chef who has not seen her sister in 20 years. The son of the TV chef takes a job in the curry shop without telling his aunt who he is. The son begins to learn about his past and begins to turn against his mother some. When his aunt, though, finds out he is gay, she shuns him. His mother comes to see her sister and they reconcile and she convinces her sister to accept her son.

The strength of the movie is its even handedness. There are no monsters, just the little slights that life has: TV producers that want to make the chef into the sterotype of an Indian goddess; the familly that shuns the gay son; the mother unable at first to accept a mixed race grandson. In this sense the film veres away from long arguments and fights about identity and chooses a quieter, more meditative path. There are a few moments of violence and shouting, but in all the film tries to show identity affects the family. Every family member brings a different identity and each family member must deal with those as best they can.

In Apron Strings, though, the strength becomes a bit of a weakness in that all the problems within the families are resolved at the end of the movie. The resolution lightens the questions it did have, because in resolving an issue in a film, the audience is left with nothing to take away: resolution leads to niceness. Nothing ever resolves that easily.

Apron Strings spends quite a bit of time contrasting of food cultures: the curry shop, the macrobiotic diet of the daughter, the proprietor’s great cakes and bland British style cooking. I wish this had been a little bit more in the forefront. It might have made the movie just a bit more memorable.

Apron Strings is a good film with a nice story and worth watching if it ever comes your way.

Chef’s Special – A Review

Big Night meets the Bird Cage might be the best way to describe this gay cooking comedy. It was funny in the way that slapstick and exaggerated characters can be: fun for a while, but not good for a repeat viewing. It was an at times funny movie filled with stereotypes that were played well: the flamboyant gay man, the ex-punk, the desperately lonely woman, the parents who are unable to understand the gay son and either make constant jokes or are constantly praying to God for his salvation. Mix all those together and you’re bound to get some laughs. At times, though, the movie seemed a little slow, in part because it is more than just comedy. The chef also has two children with whom he has a bad relationship. In particular, the relationship with the son is troubled and the film is much more serious. In these scenes the film slows down and could have been treated a little better in serious film. The real problems between the two are somewhat distracting and would be better served in a less comedic way where the topic is respected more.

The description from the SIFF guide describes the part of the film quite well: “Maxi is a master chef who wants a Michelin star so badly he can taste it. After years of toiling in his chic Madrid restaurant, he feels he’s on the brink of culinary superstardom—that is, until Maxi’s two estranged children show up on his doorstep. Not only are the children grieving over the recent death of their mother, they must now come to terms with their father’s openly gay lifestyle. To complicate matters further, Horacio, a sexy Argentine ex-soccer star, moves in next door, diverting the attentions of both Maxi and Alex, the restaurant’s unstable maître d’.” The soccer player, though, is in the closet becuase he is afraid of the homophobic sports world.

In all it is a light romantic/family/food comedy that has its moments.

The Anarchist’s Wife – A Review

Every war once it begins to be committed to film has its own cliches. The Anarchist’s Wife from film makers Marie Noelle and Peter Sehr is full of those from the Spanish Civil War as it attempts to tell the sweeping love story of a young wife who stands valiantly by her husband’s side. Really it is always the risk with a war film because if it is not out and out propaganda, then it is easy to fall into the passion trap. The passion trap is where the passions of the war filter into construction of the story and infect the story with either heart wrenching shouting or overly emotive writing.

Unfortunately, The Anarchist’s Wife piles on the cliches and the shouting and the crying so that by the end of the movie you wonder did they leave anything out? Probably the most glaring cliche, or, to be kind, simplistic device, is the complicated political alliances of the family members. The wife’s brother is a Republican, her husband a Republican, and his brother and his wife a Fascist. To make it hear wrenching the sister-in-law is summarily executed by a Republican and the the young brother is executed by the Fascists. While all of this could have happened, it seems the film makers had to make sure they explained each side had its savage moments and that if someone dies on each side the emotion can be greater.

Eventually, the anarchist has to flee the fall of the government and goes into exile in France where he is put in a concentration camp.The wife waits for him and suffers the privations of the losers in the war. The wife is a fighter, but she comes off as a spoiled brat more annoying than anything else, wearing her old mink coat from when she was a rich anarchist, and unable to understand times had changed. Ultimately, though, she is allowed to go to France to reunite with her husband. At first it is happy, but then a mystery seems to swirl around him. Why is he so secretive? What is the relation with the French-German woman? Oh, they are plotting to bomb Franco from a small plane, that’s all. This is when the movie really lost its focus and really began to take on the cliches. Naturally they fail, but at least the wife and husband are together. Perhaps if the film had been about just this or without the assassination plot it would have been better.

Finally, the ending of the film was terrible. The last minute of the movie is closed by the narration of the daughter who says when Franco died Spain moved into democracy without out any problems, which isn’t true. Then she goes on to say everyone who knows a survivor must talk to them. A laudable goal, but a difficult one too. More importantly, though, it makes the film too self important. After sitting through the assassination plot that weakens what every power there was in the film, the ham handed command to talk to the survivors is just silly.

War films, easily to overloaded with passions and plot, are best left simple and shouldn’t try to encompass every last detail as The Anarchist’s Wife did.