Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Day 7

Friends: Four of my day's six screenings contained episodes of soldiers or cops beating the crap out of civilians, an all too common occurrence in this year's slate of films. Ken Loach started it all with the first Competition screening, with English soldiers brutalizing the Irish. Today the brutality circled the globe from Morocco to Mexico to Spain and some unnamed Arabic country.

Both of today's films in Competition included men in uniform going overboard in asserting their authority. The victims in Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" were Moroccan villagers who were suspected of harboring a terrorist. But this wasn't a film about terrorism, but rather about innocent acts and slight misunderstandings that lead to catastrophic results. The film brilliantly interweaves four stories, two in Morocco and the other two in Japan and the Mexican border. Inarritu, whose two previous films were "Amores Peres" and "21 Grams", could well earn best-director here for this very mature effort. The cast includes Brad Pitt, Gael Garcia Bernal and Cate Blanchett, as a consummate bitch of a wife, right up there with Sandra Bullock in "Crash." Her husband Pitt is one of the few characters in the movie who responds to crisis with some sense, but he too is driven to the brink. Characters are in peril in all four stories. Inarritu's pacing perfectly switches from one story to the next, as the tension builds in all.

Bruno Dumont's "Flanders," a tale that begins in the northeast of France where two of this three previous films took place, ventures off to to an Arabic war zone, where his French conscripts go berserk inflicting holy terror upon the innocent and undeserving. But before they are sent to war, Dumont depicts rural life with the gritty realism that marked his much-acclaimed "Life of Jesus" and "Humanite." This film doesn't probe the insidious depths of those films, but it still is an unapologetic study of man's inner recesses.

Another of the several strong Mexican films here, "The Violin," by Francisco Vargas, takes place in Chiapas, where the army is battling the rebels. The film opens with prisoners being beaten by the soldiers. The violinist is an elderly farmer whose expressive face often fills the screen. The range of emotions he expresses with his eyes and mouth alone make this film worth seeing. He smuggles ammunition to the rebels in his violin case while riding the burro he recently purchased from his patron in exchange for his year's ten hectare harvest of corn. An officer commands him to play for him when he passes his checkpoint. His soldiers cringe when he tries to play it himself.

"Salvador" takes place in 1973 Spain, the final year of Franco's dictatorship. The army and police were notorious for their methods in maintaining this fascist state, some of which we are subjected to here. This movie is the well-known, true story of Salvador, a young rebel who is apprehended and executed. The final hour of this way-too long 138 minute movie are his battles to avoid execution. The first half of the movie isn't much more than a series of bank robberies and hanging out with adoring women, with very little revolution or rhetoric.

Neither of my day's market screenings were very satisfying either. Both were back-ups after being turned away from my first choices. Everyone attending "Glow Ropes--the Rise and Fall of a Bar Mitzvah Emcee" was given a glow rope to wear around their neck while watching this amateur attempt at making a movie. This was another American independent with not enough of a budget to afford extras, with the vast majority of the scenes shot in close-up, even the bar mitzvah scenes. This one ain't goin' nowhere.

I am sorry to say the same is probably true of "A Little Trip to Heaven," by an Icelandic director, filmed in Iceland, but taking place in the U.S., starring Forest Whittaker, Julia Stiles and Peter Coyote. Whittaker plays a sleazy insurance claims investigator who is investigating a million dollar con. This was woefully unrealized. Whittaker is excellent, but the story makes no more sense than trying to pass off the rustic Icelandic scenery as some place in California.

Later, George

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