Movie Review – Gomorrah

Gomorrah Movie Of course, when I saw that hotel had Gomorrah available for pay-per-view, I HAD to watch it, so, I ponied up the money and watched… and it is a gripping film. Gomorrah is, of course, based on Roberto Saviano‘s book of the same title and for which Saviano is now living in hiding. It describes the ordinary and pervasive nature of the thorough embedding of the Camorra into life in parts of Italy.

The film follows different character, from the "businessman" who specializes in dumping (people who are in need of chemical or toxic waste disposal come to him and he finds places where they can be dumped), to the taylors who bid on collections for prestigious haute couture Italian houses, to the ordinary thugs (mostly young men) who control neighborhoods, to the kids who are used as lookouts and the money distributor who hands out mafia money to ordinary citizens. It is a system that "works" (in an Italy where a lot of things don’t, paradoxically, thanks to organized criminal groups). So, when two morons decide to play big bosses, it intensifies the usually subdued war going on between gangs and something has to be done to reestablish order… executions and assassinations ensue.

As I mentioned above, the terrifying part of Gomorra is how deeply embedded organized crime in the normal processes of the social structure of these neighborhoods. These groups are major agents of socialization, substitute families, agents of social control, welfare state, pension systems and political power as well as housing authority. In exchange for providing these "services", they demand absolute loyalty (or at the very least, silence) and no deviation is tolerated.

At the same time, this is the global era and local groups have to compete with immigrant groups who want in on the lucrative activities, from haute couture (Chinese) to basic drug dealing (Africans). And as much as ordinary people live these social conditions as oppressive, they also rely on organized crime because the state (local or national) is not doing much for them (is that an example of hollow state, John Robb?).

And because economic opportunity necessarily go through organized criminal groups, every new generation of kids knows exactly what they have to look forward to and usually engage in anticipatory socialization by becoming mules or couriers for the group and uncdergoing initiating rituals to become "men".

It is this deep embeddedness that, of course, makes it hard for formal authorities extirpate these groups and to separate civil society from them and also explains why they command such loyalty.

Movie Review – Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire Danny Boyle‘s latest film, Slumdog Millionaire, was an eerily appropriate choice of a film after the attacks in Mumbai. The movie itself was very an interesting mix of City of God and Born Into Brothels with a bit more romance (too much romance in my view, but then, there is ALWAYS too much romance from my perspective).

The movie opens as Jamal, a young man born in the slums, is being brutally interrogated by the police (meaning, tortured) as they suspect that his current success at the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire is due to his cheating. Jamal’s response to the policemen’s inquiry as to how he explains his success is simply "I knew the answers."

As the interrogation continues, each question of the game reveals an aspect of Jamal’s life, like pieces of a puzzle progressively put together and revealed through flashbacks. How does he know whose famous actor acted in a particular Bollywood film (the answer us quite… well… interesting)? How does he know which US president is on a $100 bill? How does he know the poet author / composer of a famous song? Etc. Each is answer is revealed in the texture of his life, from the death of his mother in an anti-Muslim riot (Jamal is Muslim), to the tourists at the Taj Mahal all the way to the transformation of the Indian Bombay to the global city of Mumbai.

And then, there are the three Musketeers.

At the same time, of course, the background of life in the slums is omnipresent and significant as the answer to each question is incorporated (literally) in Jamal through his very being as slumdog, as a structurally violent condition.

The movie is a wild ride, as Boyle’s films often are, with great music and incredible views of the slums both from the inside and from above. Some passages are difficult to watch while others are actually humorous (as little Jamal plays guide to clueless European tourists at the Taj Mahal, or as he plays location scouts for film producers).

The narrative structure (something to which I always pay close attention, hence my amazement at the movie Memento) is very tight and does not leave any moment of rest to the viewer as we go back and forth from the gameshow stage to the different flashbacks, rhythmed by the questions.

Oh, and be sure to stay all the way to the end of the credit. You won’t regret it. Don’t be one of these idiots who gets up and leaves as soon as the movie is over.

Movie Review – The Fall

The Fall The Fall is a very interesting film for those who enjoy the fantasy literature genre and films that mix phantasmagoric imagery with realism (not surprising coming from the  director of The Cell … which kinda sucked). The film was apparently released in 2006 but it showed up in the theaters here only this week.

The Fall has two narrative lines: a realistic one, Los Angeles in the 1920s, with a little girl hospitalized after a fall that broker her arm while she was working in an orange grove with her Eastern European immigrant family (you have to do some reading between the lines here to understand that her family was victim of anti-immigrant violence) and her father was murdered. Alexandria befriends a hospitalized man, Roy, a stuntman, who starts telling her an epic story involving a variety of fantastic places and characters inspired by the people working or visiting the hospital. That is the second narrative line.

Roy has a goal though: the story he tells Alexandria is to gain her confidence and get her to go steal some morphine for him so he can kill himself. She is just taken in by the story, which allows her to escape from the hospital environment.

The telling of the story takes the film to visually stunning images and locations (stay until the end of the credit to see the list of locations, it is truly impressive) as the heros (the bandit, the explosive expert, the Indian, the ex-slave, Charles Darwin – and Wallace the little monkey – and the mystic) pursue their quest to kill Governor Odious. If you pay close attention, you will see that all the elements of the fantastic world are directly inspired by specific details of the hospital. You can see some of the visuals at the film’s website.

This is not a movie for children (otherwise, I would not have gone to see it) and the writing kinda gets loose towards the end but I did not look at my watch throughout the film, and like Alexandria, I was captivated by the story. And let me say this: I do not like children, really, I don’t like them, but the little girl was actually cute, not overacting and overall pretty good and natural in that part.

There are no big stars in this film, which is a good thing in my view, because it does not detract one’s attention from what is going on and the acting is quite good.

Very much recommended if you want to see a film that really is original and different from run of the mill stuff, especially the !@#$ movies the studios release in the summer.

Movie Review – The Devil’s Miner

The Devil's Miner I watched The Devil’s Miner (website ) last night for the first time (it was originally from 2005) and what a film this is. The central question of the film is

How do we live in dignity?

Especially when you are 14 years old, living in Potosi, Bolivia, and you work at a mine inCerro Rico, "the mountain that eats men"? The mines there have been exploited for 450 years and are responsible for 8 million dead. Initially, exploited by the Spaniards, the mines were taken over by the Indios (indigenous peoples) and run as cooperatives but it is still as dangerous and it is still drudgery.

The film’s central character is Basilio He is 14 and has been working in the mines since he was ten. He lost his father when he was two, so, now, he is the father in the family, so much so that his little sister, Vanessa, calls him "papa". He works with his little brother Bernardino, who is twelve (also in the mines). The boys go to school for half a day and spend the rest of the time working in the mines.

The film centers around the interviews (and voice-overs) with the children, their mother, the foremen at the mines where Basilio works. The mother makes $25 a month, she had to save for two months to pay the $45 needed for school uniforms.

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Movie Review – Double Feature

Two movies this week, one decent and the other REALLY bad. First, the decent one, Rendition, by Gavin Hood (the director of Tsotsi… great film).

RenditionRendition tells the story of Isabella El-Ibrahimi (Reese Witherspoon) who searches for her Egyptian-born husband after he disappeared from his flight from South Africa (he’s a well-known engineer). The film is divided between three storylines: Isabella’s search for answers in the corridors of power, knocking on senators’ doors; Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), the CIA bureaucrat, all of a sudden put in charge of a bombing investigation in Egypt, who has to face his conscience in the face of torture; and the story of Fatima, the daughter of the chief of police in charge of the bombing investigation on the Egyptian side. Fatima is running away from an arranged marriage. The most interesting part of the film is the intersection (and surprising timing) of these storylines. There is an element of surprise you don’t expect but I won’t spoil it for you.

Oh, and there is Meryl Streep, as always, excellent at playing evil, cold-hearted, high-powered women.

The film, of course, would not please the Bush administration. It highlights all the flows of the War on Terror, especially the practice of rendition and the use of torture. All the excuses we have heard before are mentioned and proved wanting. This film is in line with Road to Guantanamo Bay, or Taxi to the Darkside. It will justify right-wingers’ beliefs that Hollywood wants us to lose the war on terror.

The way I see it, all this films on the subjects related to the war on terror, fulfill the function that the media is not fulfilling (except for Sy Hersch). They are similar to the Italian and Spanish political cinema of the 1970s where brilliant directors went after the fascistic tendencies of their respective governments (think Ettore Scola, Carlos Saura or Costa-Gavras on the Greek generals). So, no, Rendition is not a great film but a necessary one.

In the Valley of ElahOk, let me say this right off the bat: I despise Paul Haggis for Walker, Texas Ranger, for Crash, and now for In the Valley of Elah, which I saw this week. In my defense, I picked it from my on-demand service because I saw Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon in the cast, I didn’t know it was a Paul Haggis film. It was awful: what a monumental pretentious, patronizing, sexist piece of !@#$!

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Movie Review – Persepolis

Another Saturday night, another incredible film.

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Persepolis is the animated film by Marjane Satrapi, relating her coming of age in Iran, starting before the fall of the Shah regime to today. The film is divided into several segments:

  • Marjane’s childhood in Tehran before the fall of the Shah, in what seems a middle-class family; in that segment, there are a lot of hints at the political repression exercised by the Shah regime against students, left-wingers and any political opposition through the character, especially, of her uncle Anousch.

  • The end of her childhood at the time of the Revolution with the irony that the opponents to the Shah end up just as persecuted by the Ayatollahs. The women have wear the veil (nice jab at the stupid idea that a veiled woman is a free woman). Marjane sees her intelligent mother having to humiliate herself before a man just because her headscarf is not properly set. When her uncle Anousch is imprisoned, to be executed by the regime, he asks Marjane to come visit him at the prison for his only allowed visit. This is something that will mark Marjane and make her realize the brutality of the regime.

  • The Vienna years: Because of the war with Iraq, Marjane’s parents send her to the French Lycee in Vienna. There, she faces culture shock and homesickness, along with her first lousy love affairs, homelessness and a defeated return home.

  • Back to Tehran, the war is over but the situation is even worse than before she left in terms of political repression. Little vignettes show us the daily indignities that women have to endure at the hands of the Guardian of the Revolution. After a bout with depression, as she feels a stranger everywhere, Marjane pulls herself together and becomes an art student, gets married, gets divorced, then moved to Paris.

Don’t be fooled, this is a film where deep and dark reality of political oppression alternates with hilarious moments (and I mean, donkey-braying moments of hilarity). It’s even more funny if you understand French. My favorite funny moments:

  • Countless childhood moments
  • Marjane and her anarchist friends in Vienna
  • Marjane’s body matures
  • Marjane reconsiders her newly broken up love affair
  • Marjane draws her art teacher at the university as he analyzes a VERY censored version of the Birth of Venus

The voices are wonderfully done by three generations of incredible actresses: the legendary Danielle Darrieux is the grandmother (her swearing is considerably euphemized in the subtitles), the great Catherine Deneuve lends her voice to Marjane’s mother, and Catherine Deneuve’s daughter, Chiara Mastroianni (her father was the great Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni) lends her voice to the adolescent and adult Marjane.

This is first and foremost of women’s story and a feminist film. We can use more of these, these days.

The movie also does a great job at humanizing the Iranians for us. And we can certainly use more of that too. Iran is not one big monolith of Muslim evilness. We should never reduce the country to the regime governing it. In the film, mostly, people try to survive, avoid the state apparatus of repression, from whomever it comes from, the Shah or the Ayatollahs. Women have to constantly make the calculus of dignity or survival, a pretty crappy deal. More than everything else, they try to be happy. They try to outsmart the regimes by having parties where political tensions can be left behind.

I know exactly ZERO about animation but I thought it was incredibly engaging here. It is mostly in black and white, with all shades of grey. There are touches of colors at certain points (no spoiling from me, you’ll have to figure out their significance on your own). The drawing seems simple but the characters are very expressive and black, grey and white seems enough to give substance to everything, especially, the urban landscapes of Tehran and Vienna.

My only disagreement? ABBA is NOT for wimps, they still rock, dammit!

The DVD will join my collection as soon as it’s out.

Movie Review – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the ButterflyThe Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a wonderful and harrowing adaptation of the book of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby (“Jean-Do”, as everyone calls him). Jean-Dominique Bauby was the editor of the French fashion magazine Elle when, at 43, he had a major stroke that put him in a coma for three weeks. When he finally regained consciousness, he was suffering from a rare condition named “locked-in syndrome”: his mind was intact but he was completely paralyzed, from head to toe. The only part of him that worked and could be used to communicate was his left eyelid. At the hospital, he started working with a speech therapist who composed an alphabet where the letter order was based on frequency of use. The therapist would read the letters to him and he would blink when she got to the letter he wanted. With that laborious method, he managed to write a book that got published ten days before he died.

The film opens in a fashion reminiscent of another film – Johnny Got his Gun – with a subjective point of view. For the first half-hour, we see from Bauby’s perspective: the blurriness of things as he emerges from the coma, his disorientation and fear when he is explained what has happened to him, his horror when his right eye is sewn shut to prevent infection (which felt to me like a reverse version of the eye slashing in Bunuel’s Chien Andalou). This first part also introduces us to a major aspect of Bauby, his wandering eye (note how many beautiful women come to take care of him… it truly is a French film! :-)) and womanizing. This exposition and self-realization of his true self is conveyed by the visual metaphor of a collapsing glacier.

This first part is, for me, the most intense part of the film. It feels claustrophobic, destabilizing and terrifying. This intense beginning serves to attach us to the character, with all his flaws (and they are numerous) so that we don’t recoil when we finally see him, in his deteriorated state. This corresponds to the point when he decides against self-pity and to reclaim the still-human part of him.

This is not, though, just the nth iteration of the “triumph of human spirit”, otherwise, I would have been bored and annoyed watching it. Bauby knows it’s too late to make amends for past mistakes. But because his existence is now suspended, he spends his time in-between his two states: the diving bell, drowning him down with his memory, and the butterfly, liberating his imagination, out of which he will write the book.

The film is then divided between the flashback sequences where we get a glimpse of what his self-indulgent life was like, the fantasies he imagines, and the many interactions with the people who care for him, his former partner and mother of his children, his therapists, doctors, and colleagues. But, to me, the most interesting interactions are with his father and with Pierre Roussin. Bauby had agreed to give Roussin his seat on a flight which then got hijacked and Roussin became hostage in Beirut for over four years.

Most of all, the film is funny. Bauby is the same when he wakes up from his coma as he was before: snarky, sarcastic, self-indulgent and he never misses an opportunity to take a peak at an open cleavage. He never loses his sense of humor. There is neither uplifting or inspiring lesson here (thank goodness for that) nor happy ending. But it is a very intense film. Highly recommended.


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Two-line Movie Review – La Vie en Rose

A complex life, a rotten childhood, an immense talent, tormented relationships, Edith Piaf was a tragic character and Mario Cotillard deserves an Academy Award in this beautiful film.

My personal Piaf favorite: La Foule

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