2 for All-Time, 4 for No-time: Notes on The Violin, The Band’s Visit, Married Life, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Caramel, and Taxi to the Dark Side

taviraÁngel Tavira plays The Violin (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

Absolutely essential viewing, Francisco Vargas’s black-and-white drama from Mexico tells the un-sugarcoated saga of an octogenarian street violinist Don Plutarco (Ángel Tavira) whose rough, folk melodies enchant a brutal military officer (Dagoberta Gama). The two enter into an almost Scheherazade-like relationship: Plutarco may look after his harvest on occupied land, if he plays violin for the captain. This, however, is no art-house fantasy a la The Lives of Others—monsters aren’t redeemed by exposure to music (or literature or theatre or painting), and The Violin doesn’t insult us by pretending otherwise, which is why it took the movie years to find a U.S. distributor.

Martín Boege’s cinematography richly imbues the film’s portrait of displaced peasants with the quality of fable. In the best example of this, Plutarco tells his young grandson the story of the earth’s creation by the Ancient Gods. In short order, it becomes a tale of the injustice and inequality of the world. While Plutarco uses myth to placate the boy’s questions about death, the camera rolls over nighttime exteriors, casually ambling from the ground to the tree branches, and then to an exquisitely framed chiaroscuro of the moon that looms into view as the off-screen voices taper away.

The above capsule was originally published in Willamette Week in February 2008. For an earlier incarnation of this review, click here.

bakri

What I initially wrote about The Band’s Visit was this:

The first few scenes of an Egyptian police orchestra wandering lost in and around an airport in the Negev desert are uncomfortably reminiscent of Milos Forman’s early Czech comedies, then the movie comes into its own when the band’s handsome young violinist (Saleh Bakri), a long-limbed, curly-headed fellow with a Chet Baker fixation, begins to sing “My Funny Valentine” to a woman attendant in a glass booth. Even though her window microphone compresses his mellifluous voice into something metallic, his passion still wows her. That’s the movie’s real subject: how music stirs us up. A group of men at a dinner table launching impromptu into Gershwin’s “Summertime” becomes ineffably funny—both from the guttural rumble of their voices and the way they salivate over the lyric, “And your mama’s good-lookin’.” I roared with laughter (the roller disco sequences) until I welled up with tears—an unhappily married butch offering a clarinetist advice on how to end an unfinished concerto may be the dramatic high point of any movie this year.

Had I the space, I might have gone on to add:

Breathtakingly poignant, The Band’s Visit has the same effect as a beautiful dream that you regret being unable to recall fully on waking. The revelations that spring from after-dark conversations, such as the one alluded to above, but also between Sasson Gabai’s Captain and his Israeli “date,” Ronit Elkabetz’s Dina, are as tantalizing as subconscious-derived insight that’s out of grasp in daylight hours. Like in a recurring dream, director Eran Kolirin’s screenplay reveals snippets of truth that are never entirely unveiled—that are sensed rather than made explicit. And that also, on my second viewing, transmitted the sensation of being pleasantly, ever so lightly intoxicated.

I almost missed The Band’s Visit altogether, because a certain critic, who’s a friend, dismissed it as “giving new meaning to the term slight.” Given that she and I are in disagreement 50% of the time, I don’t know why I was inclined to take her word for it, although perhaps low expectations are for the best: this unassumingly powerful film about the human condition exhilarated me precisely because its depths were so unexpected.

As Tewfiq, the Captain of this Arab orchestra, Gabai combines courtliness, formality, and secret humility. In sharing certain details of his past and in surviving awkward moments with Dina during their night on the town, Tewfiq achieves a level of intimacy with her that’s eluded him in other relationships, very possibly even with his late wife. Dina, through her odd mixture of sultriness, practicality, and clumsiness, awakens Tewfiq’s soul. And yet it’s the younger, infinitely more physically attractive Khaled (Bakri) she takes to bed with her. There’s a moment, in the dark, when Tewfiq stands in her apartment in his undershirt, listening to the sound of Khaled and Dina’s off-screen lovemaking, that simply says it all about the corporeal versus the spiritual.

Just prior to this, Kolirin stages a scene for the three of them, a brilliantly composed shot of Tewfiq and Dina seated at a table as Khaled, moved to take out his trumpet, blows a solo of “My Funny Valentine.” As they listen to the plangent beauty of an un-muted horn, Kolirin arranges the primary light source to illumine Tewfiq on the left side of the frame, while centering Dina’s upraised face, pale and beaming, behind the Captain. It’s a stunning effect, one that seems to suggest, for whatever reason, that Tewfiq is the sun and Dina is the moon.

pclarksonPretty much the opposite of all that is Ira Sachs’s stale, studied, toneless, hapless mess Married Life, an ode of sorts to the death of imagination. The movie, which has none of the subtlety that defined the writer-director’s previous film Forty Shades of Blue, opens with Doris Day’s dreadful rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” a great song tossed off at too fast a tempo as a montage of greeting card art/antique kitsch idealizations of romance and fake happiness slides on-screen in the manner of a PowerPoint presentation. Sachs is the wrong director to make a period piece set in 1949; he’s also the wrong director to try a mystery—at least I presume that’s what Married Life aims to be. The script, co-penned with Oren Moverman, doesn’t work because the scenario is too far outside Sachs’s realm of experience. He can neither create suspense (pacing much too slow for that) nor utilize the clichés and conventions of suburban banter to a particular end. If he’s trying to use surface politeness as a means to subvert or transgress, he falls flat. Thus asks Chris Cooper, quizzing his wife about a movie she only pretended to go to: “How was the picture?” Patricia Clarkson’s response: “Fine. It was a good picture.” This is shallower than anything Todd Haynes concocted in Far From Heaven. It is slick, empty, nauseating.

Cooper, looking owlish in tortoise-shell frames, speaks in a flat, thin whine, and his pinched little mouth forever puckers downward. Pierce Brosnan’s voice-over narration looms over the majority of scenes, though they would play well enough without it; Brosnan eventually drops the Cary Grant shtick he starts off with. Clarkson, sporting dark red hair, looks nice in the pale blue blouse she wears for an ambulatory scene in her living room and likewise in the pale blue negligee she dons for taking pills and going to bed early. Clarkson’s sharp line readings are alert, alive, and crackling, yet her character is supposed to be delusional about her husband’s “business trips.” Her persona consistently out-circles Cooper’s, if only by implication, yet Sachs seems not to have considered this. At one point, Brosnan, their family friend, catches Clarkson with her handsome, junior-in-years lover. All three adults calmly have coffee together. “What I could use is a drink,” someone says. How is this junk supposed to play? What are Sachs’s intentions? There’s an especially ill-conceived burial scene (Cooper digs a grave for a dog he poisoned) in which Brosnan wavers at saving Clarkson, for whom the dog has served as a “practice run,” then more or less abandons her. Sachs strives for cruelty here, but achieves a neurasthenic unpleasantness at most.

mcadamsOnly Rachel McAdams comes off well. Her stylized first entrance—she materializes on the landing of a smoke-filled old boys’ club—appears designed to conjure shades of Kim Novak in Vertigo, though McAdams isn’t playing a femme fatale. An emblem of icy blonde elegance, her platinum hair severely coiled, she wears a tweed overcoat (gray) against her alabaster skin and red, red lips. In a talk with Brosnan, she reminisces, convincingly, about her late husband, a veteran who simply never returned from World War II. McAdams’s Kay succeeds because of this: Sachs identifies with her, a vivacious blonde angel honey with an undercurrent of reserve. Dickon Hinchliffe’s minor-key orchestral score, however, with its repetitive motif of a glockenspiel over escalating waves of strings, is as suitably moribund as the rest of the proceedings.

From there, we plunge into the abyss, cinematically, with one of the worst films, if not in fact the worst film, of ’08 or ’07, or whenever. I’ve already made my feelings about the loathsome and amateurish 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days perfectly clear in the comments section of some Willamette Week post in which the other freelancers and I were instructed to choose what each of us considered the most abysmal offering dished up at the Portland International Film Festival. (Purely for good contrarian sport, I gave the nod to Paranoid Park.) The only thing deadlier and emptier than 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in its present condition, I asserted, would be an American remake of it directed by Noah Baumbach, perhaps starring Jack Black as the abortionist and, oh, say can you see Scarlett Johansson as one of the gloomy college girls.

4monthsThe lone well-written scene occurs more than an hour into Cristian Mungiu’s screenplay: “Tell me, why did so-and-so recommend this Mr. Bebe?” the lead girl questions her abortion-seeking roomie, whose callow ineptitude and casual lies have resulted in such indignities as impromptu prostitution for both of them. “I’m upset that this ended up this way because of your stupid ideas,” she remonstrates. And that’s the only real drama in it. The much-ballyhooed dinner party sequence is a dud: camera set-ups parked for an eternity as The Girl, who isn’t much at implying an interior life, stands out in angst-ridden bas relief against all those schmucky dopes ignorant of her turmoil. (Ah, the cinema of I-know-more-than-the-rest-of-you condescension.) Mungiu has no flair for movie directing whatsoever, right down to the choice of outfitting the pale, thin, mousy boyfriend in acid-washed denim, just to accentuate his blandness all the more. A horrible movie in nearly every regard, this over-praised collage of static shots (and attendant induced stupefaction), much like its tepid cousin 12:08 East of Bucharest, revels in monotone not only as a style, but as a worldview. From the opening shot of a cigarette left burning in an ashtray at one end of a dorm room table (a goldfish at the other end looks as if it could choke) to the interminable discussions about nothing, such as whether the boyfriend’s mother will be 47, 48, or perhaps 49 on her upcoming birthday, this is less a movie than a mechanism for spotting a phony—anyone who professes to find depth here has to be putting you and themselves on. It amounts to no more than drab bullshit rigged to provoke an unearned emotional response: After all that ugly, deliberately washed-out tedium, Mungiu holds for three or four minutes a disgusting shot of a bloody fetus on a bathroom floor. Are we to be appalled by the horrors of the Ceauşescu era or applaud the director’s minimalist theatrics? The film ends with the dumb Gabita, fresh from her procedural, in a restaurant looking at a menu, choosing her consumption options. We get the idea—she’s a cipher on a conveyer belt through life, but so what? It doesn’t take genius to make a movie about that. But it does take a herd of undistinguished and indistinguishable movie reviewers to elevate this crap by falling it for it like a ton of bricks. Or like a ton of pricks.

4M, 3W & 2D’s only serious rival for the most noisome art-house sludge to ooze across the screen in the first quarter of ’08 is the wretched Lebanese film Caramel. I don’t intend to discuss this paean to nail-polish-for-menstrual-blood now (or ever), suffice to say that the same critic who nearly talked me out of seeing The Band’s Visit waxed rhapsodically about this bomb, about its “universality.” And I thought—the universality of what? Of incompetence and vulgarity? Of built-in sitcom laugh tracks? If writer/director/star/chief perpetrator Nadine Labaki weren’t a female of a certain ethnicity, no one would pay attention to her or her worthless debut at all.

darktaxiUnder a starry sky: Taxi to the Dark Side (Image courtesy of Think Film Company)

Alex Gibney, who once made a terrifically engaging picture about Enron, now yields, in Taxi to the Dark Side, to what the critic Arlene Croce might call the pornography of atrocity. It’s all very well pieced together; Gibney had the fine editor Sloane Klevin at his disposal, but…

Horror isn’t the same thing as empathy. The saturated ochre exteriors of Afghanistan sky and cloudscapes are fetching backdrops for the story of Dilawar, a handsome young cabbie who, having committed no crime, died a detainee at Bagram Prison, shackled and beaten by our beloved U.S. servicemen. The military deemed his death the result of “natural causes.” The woman leader, Carolyn Wood, who issued the fatal commands at Bagram and would thereafter transfer her techniques to Abu Ghraib, denied Gibney an interview; she’s present via close-ups of a pert badge photo that emphasizes her bland, wholesome evilness. The “poor” male guards who carried out her orders portray themselves as victims of circumstances who were “misled” by the military brass, which is, if you’ll forgive a personal note, total bullshit. Who did the torturing? These men pin blame on Cheney, fleetingly glimpsed here a week after 9/11, blathering on a talk show, “We’re gonna spend some time in the shadows.” (Gibney never gets around to spending substantial time with Dilawar’s surviving family, or with any of the Afghanis. In a documentary about their own plight, they’re still relegated to bit roles.)

War criminal-in-chief George W. Bush is on-hand, though, to tell us, “One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice,” and later to sneer—in his inimitably cocaine-addled, alcoholic frat boy-cum-Jesus freak façade—at a Geneva Convention article on human dignity, which he fitfully dismisses as “vague.” Glockenspiel music on the soundtrack, delicate pealing chimes, accompanies a barrage of indefensible acts, as Gibney shows us, again and again, what U.S. foreign policy amounts to: A self-loathing, deluded, and shameful mess. But for all that, including a primer on how to induce acute psychosis in 48 hours, vis-à-vis the manipulation of universal sensory receptors, I found myself resenting how Gibney shovels it onto the choir; the movie is recommended only for right-wing hooligans in dire need of an education.

My interest revived when a Voice of Sanity ex-FBI agent, arriving late in the picture, states that Bush tactics “breed contempt for the United States.” Furthermore, this agent-turned-consultant points out the sheer stupidity of believing coerced confessions; that as a person will say anything to make torture stop, the info Bush’s flunkies obtain will naturally be false. His advice: Rapport building is the way to go, because that way, “We don’t have to apologize to anybody.” He predicts future revenge, “and all you have to do is show a simple dog collar photo.” Which brings me to this: The grinning idiot young white women in these infamous photographs come across as significantly more frightening than their male counterparts—they’re perversions of girl-next-door wholesomeness. Later still, hawkish foreign policy, someone dares to say, endangers America—“If you weren’t a terrorist when you came in here, you certainly would be by the time you left, because of the way you were treated,” so declares a wrongly detained British Muslim who miraculously lived to tell. And, as long as I’m reeling off the ways and means of this cinematic trousseau of the Bush legacy, there’s a brief drop-in by the eminently repulsive Senator John McCain, a man who in 2000 seemed a maverick (I actually voted for him in the Republican primary that year), a cameo long enough to encapsulate how McCain has spent the last eight years—not as an heroic defender of the American people during the darkest period in our history, not as the revolutionary dissenter that our global nightmare of a U.S. Supreme Court-appointed “President” run amok would have seemed to call for, but as the capitulator and sell-out he truly is. – NPT

February/March/April 2008

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