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In The Ides of March, characters don’t have relationships with each other.  Not really.  Because in this world of politics, another person is only something to be used when needed and discarded when he or she becomes too much of a liability.  Friendships don’t seem to exist.  There are contacts or employers/employees or consultants, but no confidantes.  The movie shows us just how dangerous secrets are in this realm, and their power to set any number of things in motion.  And there’s no character development, by design.  The film supposes that people, at least in the political racket, are made up of their wants and then, to a man, will do whatever it takes to acheive those goals.  Indeed, it is perhaps telling that the only character seemingly unwilling to let the means justify the ends is the politician himself, George Clooney, a superficially Obama-like (circa 2007) governor vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But the story isn’t his, rather it is Ryan Gosling’s, something of a wunderkind who is second in command of Clooney’s campaign, working under Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Other characters include Paul Giamatti, campaign manager for Clooney’s rival; Marisa Tomei in a thankless role as a news reporter; Evan Rachel Wood as an attractive young staffer on Clooney’s campaign; Jeffrey Wright as a senator who could swing the race but is demanding a cabinet-level position in return for the delegates, Jennifer Ehle as Clooney’s wife; and Max Minghella as third in command of Clooney’s campaign, giving the worst performance ever recorded on film.  In completely unrelated news, Minghella is apparently dating Kate Mara in real life.

I don’t think I can get into the plot beyond those character descriptions without getting spoilery.  And though we have policy here of allowing spoilers, I’m not sure there’d be point.  The film is a little slow to get started, but once it does, I’m not sure anything is terribly surprising, necessarily.  It is film about political intrigue – there are power struggles, secrets, scandals, and backroom deals.

And that’s sort of the problem.  Nothing feels terribly inspired about the film.  Everything is entirely professional, of course.  I mean, look at that cast.  But since none of the characters seem to feel any emotion, other than the most generic stuff, each actor is subtle and understated, but not carrying the film on his shoulders.  So there’s not really anything special to watch while the nothing in particular is going on.

One plot point (and I’m not revealing anything that wasn’t in a trailer, I believe) is that Ryan Gosling meets with Giamatti, who as mentioned heads the campaign for the other committee.  This apparently is a big deal.  But John and I both agreed that the film never really justified why it caused so much fallout.  Maybe it really would be a big deal, but if so, that’s inside baseball enough, and so integral to the story, that the film should have done a better job explaining.

A couple stray observations.  Brian and I both noticed that Clooney (as director) seemed to emphasize a particular piece of paper in one scene.  This paper was never brought up again, even though there was a perfect opportunity for it, later on.  I’d be curious to see if anyone else noticed that and found it distracting.  And maybe this is just me, but I thought the film did an excellent job deciding where to drop f-bombs.  Evan Rachel Wood says it the first time early on, bringing a jarring halt to the conversation and really illustrating how it can be a “dirty” word.

In terms of Oscar, the film won’t rate on my ballot.  A middling film with a middling script that doesn’t allow for award-worthy performances.  For the actual Oscars, the film faces a few big roadblocks.  George Clooney is also in The Descendants which seems like it will be better-received and offers Clooney a great shot at Best Actor nomination.  So a lot of Clooney’s capital will be spent on that film.  I think the only other actor in this you could pitch is Gosling, also for Actor.  But he also has Drive, plus actor is going to be a tough category again this year.  Best Adapted Screenplay is certainly a possibility, but another category jam-packed with high profile contenders.  As for Best Picture, as of right now, it seems like some prognosticators I trust have it making the cut but maybe slightly more don’t.  I’d tend to agree with Mark Harris here.  To get a nomination, a film has to be loved by at least a small, if significant, chunk of the population.  I can see The Ides of March picking up downballot votes, but it doesn’t strike me as a film that will inspire passion.

It’s come to my attention that my Spanish translation of this blog’s title has been wrong since my first post for the 2010 festival. Now that I have corrected it presumably people will actually start reading! Moving on to part two of my coverage of the 2011 AFI Latin American Film Festival. See part one here.

All Your Dead Ones (Todos Sus Muertos), Colombia, dir: Carlos Moreno

You always run the risk with a foreign film of something getting lost in translation. Sometimes literally: slang, a turn of phrase, or joke that fits perfectly in the original language might not have an appropriate translation. A lyrical line in one language can lose its beauty in another. But films also are designed with an audience in mind and they rely on that audience having certain knowledge. A joke about a stereotype won’t work if the audience doesn’t already know the stereotype. A cultural reference relies on the audience knowing the culture.

I think some of All Your Dead Ones gets lost in translation.

A farmer awakes one morning to discover a pile of bodies in his field. He dutifully hops on his bicycle to go to town and report the murders. It’s election day in the state and the politicians, policemen, and officials he meets have little interest in a massacre except to figure out how rid themselves of the problem. Eventually the mayor and some policemen make their way to the farm where they hatch a series of absurd plots to take care of the nuisance.

Many of the farm scenes turn into long, drawn-out episodes filled with uneasy silence. My sense is that they are meant to be tense, presumably because the officials’ intent to cover up the bodies could pose some danger to the farmer and his family. I did not feel this tension. To me they were nothing but long, boring scenes and I think this is where the translation problem comes in. A Colombian audience would have an understanding of the local social and political situations. The filmmakers wouldn’t have to do anything special as the audience would provide its own tension to an awkward showdown between police and lowly farmer.

On the other hand, I found the police more bumbling than threatening. I know of Colombia’s recent history of paramilitary and rebel atrocities, but there’s nothing in an encounter between a farmer and the police that would seem fraught with danger to me.

At least this is how I read it. Maybe it is meant to be kind of boring instead of tense. D.

Hermano, Venezuela, dir: Marcel Rasquin

It’s not often you get a movie that falls into the cliches of not one but two genres. In Hermano, Venezuela’s submission for last year’s Foreign Language Oscar, we get treated to a story of Daniel, a boy growing up in the Caracas slums trying to stay out of trouble while leading his soccer team to the city championships.

There is an interesting foundation to the story in Daniel’s family. The film opens with what he calls his “birth”: when he is discovered in a trash heap by a mother and her young son, Julio. The film skips ahead to when the boys are teens and the family’s interactions are sweet and interesting. The brothers are close and make a great team on the soccer field, but their status as legitimate and adoptive sons always remains just under the surface. Julio is also involved with the neighborhood’s crime syndicate, which Daniel tries to avoid but cannot always.

Hermano is one of those films where every character is allowed to have one emotion at a time and always feels that emotion very strongly. First I am sad but now I am very angry at you and now I love you. It undercuts the appeal of the family’s unique bond. It also checks all the boxes for a poor child trying but not always succeeding to avoid trouble movie and a sports movie, including the usual implausibilities of the latter.

Still, it’s hard to be too annoyed with the film as it is amiable enough. The story kept my attention even if it didn’t always grab me emotionally. Some scenes are thrilling and the limited look into contemporary life in Caracas is welcome. C-.

The Last Commandant (El Último Comandante), Costa Rica/ Brazil, dir: Isabel Martínez

Sometimes you see a movie that isn’t at all what you expected. This was my experience with The Last Commandant. The plot revolves around a former Sandanista commander in the Nicaraguan civil war who surfaces in Costa Rica decades after the war’s end. Judging from what I read about the film, I expected something related to the war’s aftermath and the social and cultural rifts that linger.

It turns out it’s a character study of an asshole. Our commander is just an asshole who didn’t care about the war, didn’t care about his wife, doesn’t care about his former soldiers he encounters, and doesn’t care who he has to screw over to get what he wants. And what he wants is the money to open a cha-cha-cha studio, a dream he’s rather pathetically pursued for years.

Interestingly, the film starts as a story about his former wife as she searches for him before entirely shifting to the commander himself. So this film wants to defy all sorts of expectations!

It’s a somewhat interesting movie that kept my attention even if it didn’t thrill or move me. It’s Damian Alcazar’s lead performance that makes it good enough to mildly enjoy. Movies about assholes can wear on the viewer and Alacazar brings enough of a pathetic air and even some humor to push the film over the line. C.

Clubbing (De Caravana), Argentina, dir: Rosendo Ruíz

Juan attends a concert in Cordoba to take some photos of a music icon. While there he meets Sara and she goes home with him but she steals his camera. He tracks her down to find that she works with a drug dealer who only promises to return his camera once he does some work for him, thrusting Juan into lower-class and criminal worlds he was unaware of in his previously high-class life. Sounds like a gritty crime drama with shifty morals and character-testing predicaments, right?

Maybe at this point I should mention that besides Sara and drug dealer Maxtor, the third member of the crime ring is a sassy but very sweet transvestite named Penelope who wants to open a spa. And that Juan doesn’t really mind his criminal errands. In fact, he rather enjoys his excursions into the criminal underworld. Juan and Maxtor become friends while Juan pursues Sara. It turns out the whole thing is very low stakes. The only real conflict is friction with Sara’s ex-boyfriend who is a competitor both in business and love.

So what’s the point then? It becomes something interesting by the utter bizareness of it all. The characters have interesting and random conversations, especially driven by Maxtor and Penelope. They’re often about nothing important but are still amusingly strange. Rodrigo Savina as Maxtor stands out with his earnest but manic investment in these discussions.

All told, a movie that modestly succeeds by riding its bizarre characters even as the plot fizzles. Not too shabby. C+.

After intense media speculation, I am pleased to confirm that I have indeed won Movieline’s 10-Word Tree of Life Review contest.

Later this week I will humbly accept my prize of a Tree of Life blu-ray combo pack at a ceremony at my mailbox. I can’t help but think back to the long series of events that culminated with my receipt of this prestigious prize for film criticism: the Big Bang, the creation of the earth, the dawn of life, the first flicker of empathy in a dinosaur, a dreamy frolic on a beach.

When viewed in the context of the history of the universe – of all there has been and all there will ever be – it’s clear that this is prize is a very, very big deal.

My winning ten word review:

Meditative examination of life’s – Whoa look at that cool sunbeam!

When I heard of the contest, two inspirations immediately came to mind. The first was a Sight and Sound interview with Malick DP Emmanuel Lebezki regarding the director’s flittering attention span:

Sometimes I would be preparing a shot with 50 extras and Terry would say, “Oh look, the wind is blowing in those trees. Let’s run down and bring Pocahontas.” I’d say, “We’ve got 50 extras!” He’d say, “Who cares!”

I knew I wanted to convey how the film contends to tackle cosmic questions but constantly detours to random shots that Malick must have thought looked pretty. (Or maybe that’s part of the point? That there’s wonder even in the way a sunbeam pierces a room?)

The influence for my award-winning review’s structure is, oddly enough, a Survivor confessional that’s fairly legendary for the show’s rabid fans, like myself. The original weirdo from the first season, Greg, is talking about avoiding the game’s darker side when he stops suddenly to point out a cool flying fish. It’s weird how random cultural references stay with you and this has been my model for someone who is distractable and easily enthused for a decade.

Whoa look at that cool universe!

I was pretty sure I would win after submitting that review, just as the expanding cosmos inexorably resulted in a conflicted childhood in 1950s Waco. It was substantive and funny, which I thought was a winning combination. Too many of the other entries were too earnest and therefore boring. “An existential foray addressing questions about self, family and universe.” True, but lame! But I wanted to include something about how the movie needed more dinosaurs, so I entered again:

Film mirrors universe with one absolute truth: needs more dinosaurs

Not bad, but it needed some tightening. I tried again:

Just like everything it could use a few more dinosaurs

I think this one went too far the other way by not being profound enough. There’s a great way to state the obvious truth that the movie needs more dinosaurs in ten words but I haven’t found it yet. I also pondered composing a joke about how Sean Penn was a really ugly dinosaur.

I finished with two others. The first is a quote from an Animaniacs song but it jives with the film’s themes.

It’s a great big universe and we’re all really puny

My final, last-minute entry I am rather proud of. It relates back to my prize-winning entry’s concern, dealing with the erratic attentions of the film.

We interrupt your plot to bring you random youtube clips

Beyond (sometimes erratic) imagery, the other main impression that stayed with me is the film’s fragmented structure, reminiscent of the nature of memory. It makes it a film you experience and let wash over you more than watch traditionally. It’s structured like it was something you in your past and are now thinking back on. Memories do not have traditional story arcs. It’s beautiful and fascinating.

But good luck distilling that into ten words.

Holy shit I’m never touching anything ever again.

(Great movie, by the way. Well worth checking out if it’s still playing near you.)

The blog has been ignored for the last month as most of us traipsed around Europe. But now we’re back and we’re kicking off with some film festival coverage! No, not Telluride or Toronto or New York or Venice, but…

Just like last year, I’m on the scene for the 22nd annual AFI Latin American Film Festival at the AFI Silver theater here in the DC area. These little local festivals are great for sampling some new films outside the usual ones that get commercial releases in the US. My choices don’t always work out, but I’ve found some terrific films over the years.

Many of these films you’ll never hear from again. But some will receive US releases and others may well factor in this year’s Foreign Language Oscar race. I’ve also visited some dark corners of the internet looking for guidance when picking what I want to see out of a film festival catalog. Perhaps I can steer a random Googler with a catalog to her own hometown festival to some winners (or warn her away from the losers).

The Mexican Suitcase (La Maleta Mexicana), Mexico/Spain, dir: Trisha Ziff

This documentary featured as the opening night selection for the festival. In 2007, a box of negatives from photos taken during the Spanish Civil War was unearthed in Mexico. The film dives into their progeny, leading to discussions of the war, the photographers, and the nature of photography as art and journalism.

The box contains work from Robert Capa, David “Chim” Seymour, and Gerda Taro, three photographers who lived among the Republican soldiers and helped pioneer modern war photography. All three eventually lost their lives in war zones. Several very famous photos from the Spanish Civil War came from them.

It turns out the negatives made their way to Mexico on the same route many of the war’s losers did: they crossed into France, where former Republican soldiers waited in concentration camps before a sympathetic Mexican government granted them asylum. The negatives ended up with a Republican general and then buried in his daughter’s closet.

The film switches among several threads. A story of the late stages of the war and the years after it forms a narrative backbone with discussions of the photographs filling in much of the content. While I was watching I couldn’t help but think that the filmmakers were tackling too much. There is the discussion of the photographers’ innovations, their relationships with each other, and the way their work has been viewed as a one block of work instead of by three distinct journalists. There is also the discussion of the discovery: who found the negatives, their journey to exhibition, and whether their appropriate home is in Mexico. And there’s all the coverage of the war in general.

This broad range of topics is necessary because no part on its own is enough for a feature length film. But at least they flow into each other nicely. I do think an interest in the Spanish Civil War or photography would be necessary to enjoy the film. I am interested in the former so I found it sufficiently interesting, though a few of the more technical photographic discussions tried my patience. B.

Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within (Tropa de Elite 2 – O Inimigo Agora É Outro), Brazil, dir: José Padilha

The first Elite Squad played the DC Film Fest in 2008. I was on a favela – Brazilian slum – film kick at the time after seeing and loving City of God. Not that the kick has necessarily waned since as it’s still strong enough that I went to see the sequel even though I didn’t care for the first. The original followed the travails of a paramilitary branch of the police department that took on tough assignments in Rio’s dangerous slums. The officers find their convictions tested by corrupt cops and moral quandaries. It was meant to be one of those tales where we wonder if the ends justify the police’s ends, but I thought it was too much flash over substance.

The sequel takes several of the original’s main characters and does so much more with them.

Nacimiento, the commander from the first film, has moved up in the world. Now he wears a suit, in charge of part of the state’s security apparatus. He has terrific success pushing the gangs out of many of the city’s favelas. Unfortunately they are replaced by corrupt cops and organized crime. This thrusts us into a world where politicians, cops, and criminals combine to form a pervasive and corrupt system. When Nacimiento realizes what has happened, and its violence hits too close to home, he fights back.

What makes Elite Squad 2 so good is that it starts with terrific action sequences and makes them mean something through its well-developed characters and social conscience. It feels like an intense exposé in the guise of an action film (but don’t worry, I wouldn’t say it ever gets preachy). It’s absolutely engrossing and tugs on the emotions. I left the theater thrilled.

Elite Squad 2 is Brazil’s Best Foreign Language submission for the upcoming Academy Awards. I wonder if sequel aversion will hurt it in this category even though it’s a terrific film, upstages its predecessor, and isn’t reliant on viewers having seen the first. I would be quite excited to see it nominated. It will also receive a US commercial release in November. A.

Of Love and Other Demons (Del Amor y Otros Demonios), Colombia/Cost Rica, dir: Hilda Hidalgo

I probably should have known better on this one. Gabriel García Márquez is a writer I think I enjoy more in concept than in practice. His languid pace projected on a silver screen is a killer.

When Sierva, a teenager in colonial Colombia, is bit by a mad dog, she is sent to a convent to be exorcised, as it was believed at the time that rabid dogs transmitted demonic possession. The young priest assigned to her case begins to think there’s nothing wrong with her, though the long periods of isolation seem to be making her a bit mad. They begin a tentative, very slow, very uninteresting courtship.

Some reviews I read said the slow pace works because there’s so much beautiful imagery on screen. I respectfully beg to differ. The camera finds plenty of little moments to linger over, but they are not beautiful nor interesting enough to make up for the plot. This movie pretty much sapped me of energy for the rest of the day so potent was its lethargy. It doesn’t get much worse than that. D-.

October 2011