film review: HUNGER

Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Enda Walsh & Steve McQueen
Produced by Laura Hastings-Smith & Robin Gutch
Cinematography by 
Sean Bobbitt BSC
Edited by Joe Walker
Original music by David Holmes with Leo Abrahams
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan & Liam McMahon
UK-Ireland, 2008, 96 minutes

[Article originally appeared: http://www.rabbireport.com/archives/2009/03/theatrical-revi-6.htm]

The double meaning in this astonishing film’s title refers to both the hunger for food as well as for freedom. The prisoners in this factually-based and brutally realistic film are starved for both.

In 1981, during the troubles in Northern Ireland, the UK government was imprisoning IRA members but refusing to give them political prisoner status. As a result a group detained at the HM Prison Maze (aka Long Kesh), led by Bobby Sands, went on “blanket protest” which basically meant refusing prison uniforms. This led to them being exposed to almost unimaginably horrendous conditions and as well as to a series of violent repercussions.

The film, the first directed by British multi-media artist Steve McQueen, opens with a middle aged man beginning his day. Much of his initial behavior seems mundane; getting dressed and being served toast & tea by his wife. But then we see him soaking his bloodied and swollen knuckles in the bathroom sink; and, just before he drives off to work, he kneels down to look under his car for a bomb. This man turns out to be prison guard, Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham). The film’s narrative is confusing at first; we assume that the story will be about this wounded individual. We also assume that he is carrying around fear, guilt and grief since he works in such a brutal environment. Surely he must feel ambivalent about his job.

But what we soon realize is that McQueen’s narrative is not going to appeal to those traditional expectations and that the story doesn’t follow Lohan. In fact, the trail is shortly thereafter picked up by a new inmate, a young man (Brian Milligan) clearly out of his element, terrified but decidedly a soldier for the cause. He is stripped of his clothes, given a ratty blanket and thrown into a prison cell, one which is cold and whose walls are smeared with his cellmates feces. The ensuing scenes are the hardest to watch. We soon find out how these political prisoners survive and how contraband –whether it be communications or objects– are secreted in and out of Maze. Read more

film review: THE POPE’S TOILET

Written & directed by Enrique Fernández & César Charlone
Based on an original script by Enrique Fernández
Produced by Elena Roux
Released by Film Movement
Spanish with English subtitles
Uruguay/France/Brazil. 97 min. Not Rated
Cast:  César Troncoso, Virginia Méndez, Virginia Ruiz, Mario Silva, Henry De Leon & José Arce

[Article originally appeared: http://www.film-forward.com/popestoilet.htm]

In sturdier economic times, Cesar Charlone and Enrique Fernandez’s film “The Pope’s Toilet” might have resonated less. It’s hard not to buy into and be won over by the unflappable Beto (César Troncoso), a smuggler of petty contraband who struggles to provide for his wife Carmen (Virginia Méndez) and their teenage daughter Sylvia (Virginia Ruiz). Along with a small band of his neighbors, Beto makes daily trips across the nearby border on his ramshackle bicycle from his impoverished Uruguayan village of Melo to Brazil. (His trips back are invariably disrupted by corrupt customs agents and the border patrol.) Beto has many reasons to feel oppressed and downtrodden in a scenario which much resembles that of his cinematic ancestor Antonio Ricci (“Bicycle Thieves”), who too had to rely on two wheels for economic survival.

Good news comes in the visit of Pope John Paul II, whose itinerary has him stopping in Melo where some 50,000 visitors are expected. An ever enterprising Beto decides that a pay toilet built only yards from the crowds will be the solution to all his family’s financial problems. Crunching the numbers with Carmen, Melo even believes that the proceeds will pay for their daughter’s tuition. Sylvia, much like her Dad, has ambitions of her own, which do not include sewing school. Bright and attractive, she is a most believable bi-product of her parents in a moderately paced movie which doesn’t emphasize character development. The tone is “The Pope’s Toilet’s” biggest challenge. Whether the movie is trying to be an inspirational drama in the legacy of Angela’s Ashes, or an offbeat comedy (remember that on the surface this movie is about making a toilet), remains a question. Lovingly photographed by César Charlone, it is in the end worthwhile and quietly moving. In an age when one must think of new ways and means just to make ends meet, Beto is indeed a man ahead of his time.

film review: CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’

Directed by Cristian Nemescu
Produced by Andrei Boncea
Written by Tudor Voican & Nemescu
Released by IFC Films
English & Romanian with English subtitles
Romania. 155 min. Not Rated
With Armand Assante, Jamie Elman, Razvan Vasilescu, Maria Dinulescu & Alex Margineau

[Article originally appeared: http://www.film-forward.com/californiadream.html]

On the heels of “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”, and what is commonly being referred to as the Romanian New Wave comes “California Dreamin’”, a relatively lighthearted tale. The darker and sadder story here is that Cristian Nemescu, the film’s director, died in a car accident shortly after finishing this, his only feature film. At the very least, it can be said that the director had a sure hand and a promising career ahead of him.

In A. O. Scott’s feature article in last January’s New York Times Magazine, the reviewer formally introduced the rising Romanian film movement to mainstream America. But to compare it to, say, the French New Wave might be a bit premature, but clearly, as Scott illustrated, something has taken hold in that part of the world. While Lazarescu and “4 Months”, directed by Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu respectively, were reminiscent of cinema vérité, with long continuous passages shot in what seems like real time (think Andrei Tarkovsky or, more recently, Bela Tarr), “California Dreamin’”, by contrast, seems positively upbeat as its title suggests. Nemescu’s technique is traditional linear storytelling.

Armand Assante (right) in CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'; photo courtesy of IFC Films

The story opens in flashbacks, during an incidental bombing by the Allied Forces in World War II. A family is sitting at the dining room table eating their meal when air raid sirens go off. They grab their packed suitcases and make a dash for the shelter. While running down the stairs, there’s a thunderous crash, and moments later they are being chased down the stairs by an unexploded missile. As the bomb lays unexploded, we see stamped underneath a plate, Made in America. Seemingly, the point of the flashback is to show how America has a long and sloppy history of leaving its mark on parts of Europe, taking them for granted and using their resources when convenient only to abandon them in their times of need. Read more

film review: GOMORRAH

Directed by Matteo Garrone
Produced by Domenico Procacci
Written by Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso & Roberto Saviano, based on the book by Saviano
Released by IFC Films
Italian with English subtitles
Italy. 135 min. Not Rated
Cast: Marco Macor, Ciro Petrone, Salvatore Abruzzese, Toni Servillo, Carmine Paternoster, Gianfelice Imparato, Maria Nazionale & Salvatore Cantalupo

[Article originally appeared: http://www.film-forward.com/gomorrah.html]

After watching “Gomorrah”, you’re likely never to have much of a vicarious thrill watching a movie mob hit again. Actually, considering the reach of the Neapolitan crime network—or Camorra as it is locally referred—the glamorous lure of crime films should be the least of one’s concerns. Bleak, brutal, and raw, Gomorrah is told in a matter-of-fact yet intense manner that in no way fetishizes gangland crime, as is the case with many movies and the Sicilian Mafia. Perhaps it’s due to the immigrant saga and the pursuit of the American Dream, but the Sicilian Mafia has gotten some very good mileage out of Hollywood. These films, as violent as they may be, usually include a code of honor, which makes the movies more palatable. With the Camorra—Gomorrah is a convenient and appropriate variation—rules are always changing, and loyalty to someone one day can get you killed the next.

The movie has caused quite the sensation back in the old country. The author of the 2006 non-fiction book from which the screenplay is adapted, Roberto Saviano, requires around-the-clock police protection since threats have been made on his life. Told through five interwoven storylines a la “Traffic” or “21 Grams”, “Gomorrah” is stripped down and documentary like in its approach. There are absolutely no feel-good moments and even the more relaxed moments, like when two teenage wannabe and renegade thugs lightheartedly reenact dialogue from Brian De Palma’s “Scarface”, only fill you with more dread. Read more