Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Boy from Brazil

The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (O Ano em Que Meus Pais Sairam de Ferias), Brazil’s entry for best foreign film in this year’s Academy Awards, is a semi-autobiographical snapshot Brazil in 1970. That year, when director Cao Hamburger was eight, his professor parents were arrested by the military dictatorship for supporting “subversives.”

The movie, written by Claudio Galperin and Adriana Falcão, is told through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy, Mauro (Michel Joelsas), an ardent soccer fan whose activist parents tell him they’re going “on vacation” and will return for the World Cup finals. They leave him at the São Paolo apartment of his paternal grandfather, Mótel (Paulo Autran), an Orthodox Jewish barber. Unknown to the boy, his parents (Simone Spoladore, Eduardo Moreira) are going underground, and unknown to the parents, Mótel has died, leaving Mauro in the reluctant care of his neighbor, Shlomo (Germano Haiut) and the largely Jewish community of Bom Retiro.

Mauro's longing for his parents is palpably sad. For a time he moves into his dead grandfather’s apartment just to feel some family connection. He befriends the neighborhood children, including Hanna (the appealing Daniela Piepszyk), a clever, tomboyish girl who sells the boys peephole access to her mother’s dress-store fitting rooms.

The movie is organized around the fervor of the World Cup championship, with vintage footage of the famous games starring Pelé and other football luminaries of the day. Mauro is only vaguely aware of the political maelstrom surrounding him, and his naïve point of view is a disadvantage dramatically. The story of what happened to his parents would be a lot more interesting than the many scenes of people cheering at soccer games. But this is not so much a political story as a poignant melodrama about a boy caught up in events just beyond his understanding.

On that level, the movie is somewhat successful. Yet it does leave you hungry for something more substantial. (In Portuguese, English and Yiddish, with subtitles.)

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

No Human Being Is Illegal

Filmmaker Patricia Riggen said in a recent interview that she didn't originally set out to make a movie about immigration. When she first read a script by Ligiah Villalobos that had sat unproduced for six years, immigration wasn’t yet the incendiary subject of Lou Dobbs demagoguery. Riggen, a former journalist who grew up in Guadalajara, was captivated by the narrative about a mother and son separated by national borders, seeing in it a universal story of family love.

The script became her feature film debut, Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna), a lovely, affecting story about a young Mexican woman, Rosario (Kate del Castillo), who works illegally in Los Angeles, and the efforts of Carlitos (Adrian Alonso), the 9-year-old son she left behind in Mexico, to join her after his grandmother dies. The movie received a standing ovation at the 2007 Sundance festival, and was bought by Fox Searchlight and the Weinstein Company for $5 million, the highest price ever paid for a Spanish-language film.

The narrative gracefully alternates between Rosario’s life in L.A. and Carlito’s in Mexico. Rosario’s life is typical of many undocumented workers: riding the bus before dawn, cleaning houses for demanding wealthy wives, sewing dresses for extra money, and staying one step ahead of immigration officials. Carlitos is well cared for by his loving grandmother (Angelina Peláez), but painfully misses his mother, whom he hasn’t seen in four years. He looks forward to her weekly calls from a corner pay phone.

At Carlito’s birthday party, his neighbor Manuel (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) reveals that he’s really his uncle, brother of the father he’s never known. Manuel wants Carlitos to live with him, a scheme Carlitos’ grandmother suspects has to do with the support money Rosario sends every month.

Carlitos awakens one morning to find that his grandmother has died in her sleep. Fearing Manuel’s machinations, Carlitos determines to go to the U.S. in search of his mother. He enlists the help of Marta (Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera), a second-generation Latina trying to raise college tuition money by smuggling babies across the border.

Things go awry at the border gate, leaving the boy undetected but alone and without money. He soon finds himself at the mercy of human traffickers and INS agents, then in the reluctant company of Enrique (Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez), who wants nothing to do with a kid (“I travel alone,” he insists). The pair embark on a journey to find Carlito’s mother, stopping to work in a restaurant and to look for Carlitos’ father.

Gradually Enrique warms to the little boy, who confides that his mother told him to look at the moon — la misma luna, the same moon she is looking at — whenever he felt lonely. Rosario, meanwhile, is unaware that her mother has died or that Carlitos is looking for her. After she is fired from one of her cleaning jobs, she despairs of saving enough money to get her citizenship and bring Carlitos to live with her. She must decide whether to return to Mexico or marry Paco (Gabriel Porras), a Mexican immigrant who has his citizenship papers and a big crush on Rosario.

This is a very sentimental story that is certain to raise a tear or three, but Riggen balances the sweetness with a wry, knowing perspective on the mechanics of border crossing and the lives and attitudes of undocumented workers. Popular Latin radio deejay El Cucuy is heard musing on the immigrant background of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has signed anti-immigration measures, and a song, “Superman Es Ilegal,” complains that Superman, from Krypton, is an illegal immigrant, but preferred because of his light skin. Paco, the naturalized citizen, offers Rosario a capsule version of American history: “First they screwed the Indians and the slaves, and now us poor Mexicans.”

The movie won’t change anyone’s attitude about immigration; CNN anchor Dobbs, for instance, who warns viewers that Mexican immigrants are “an army of invaders” intent on reannexing parts of the southwestern U.S. to Mexico (which would only be fair, since we stole it from them), clearly would not be moved. But for all but the most rabid protectionists, there is much to appreciate in this touching, humane film.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Daley Show

Remember the bad old days, when the government lied its way into invading a distant country, sent young men to fight and die in an illegal war and, despite the opposition of a majority of Americans, decided to escalate the war? When our leaders used state power to spy on citizens and silence dissent?

Thank God we now live in more enlightened times.

In reality, of course, things haven’t changed much, except that the U.S. learned important lessons from the Vietnam War. By ending the draft, enlisting the press and tightly controlling access to information, it prevented mass protests of the kind that arose in the late ’60s, which were a disastrous problem for the war’s planners.

A pivotal year was 1968, the focus of Chicago 10, an unusual documentary about the protests in Chicago surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and the trial the following year of eight antiwar organizers on charges including conspiracy and inciting to riot. The defendants were Abbie Hoffman Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale. The defendants became known as the Chicago Seven after Black Panther activist Seale’s case was severed from the others, but writer-director Brett Morgan, calls his film Chicago 10 to include defense lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, both of whom were convicted on contempt charges.

The film juxtaposes excellent archival footage, much of it from Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, of the Chicago protests, in which Mayor Richard Daley’s police used tear gas, fists and nightsticks to beat protesters bloody, with an animated dramatization of the trial, one of the most notorious in recent history thanks largely to the antics of Yippie leader Hoffman, the incorrigible clown prince of protest, who blew kisses to the jury (a staid lineup Hoffman said looked like “the back pages of the Ladies Home Journal”), had his co-defendants walk into court wearing judicial robes, and suggested the judge try LSD, offering to set him up with a dealer in Florida.

The trial was a made-for-the-movies affair, helmed by the elderly Judge Julius Hoffman — no relation to Abbie, but the shared name was the source of many jokes.
The irascible judge made no pretense of impartiality, repeatedly denying the defendants’ motions and ordering Seale — who spoke out bitterly when denied the right to defend himself — bound and gagged and sentenced to four years for contempt.

Using animation to dramatize this singular event is a clever idea, since the transcripts are available but film footage is not. Unfortunately, the rotoscope animation is awkward, with a distracting tendency to make us look into the cavernous interiors of characters’ mouths. And, the contrast between the news footage and the contemporary animation is jarring. The real-life Hoffman, with his fast, East Coast-inflected patter, is far more compelling than the animated Hoffman, voiced by Hank Azaria, who sounds, regrettably, like one of his Simpsons characters, Moe the Bartender.

Although it is a cliché to pair late-’60s protest rock with footage of hippie demonstrations, it’s not necessarily a better idea to score it with Rage Against the Machine and Eminem, some of the artists represented on the soundtrack. The music, which runs through large portions of the animated sequences, is loud and distracting, not to mention historically irrelevant. I don’t know, maybe Morgen thought it would make the film more accessible to younger viewers.

Even with its questionable style choices, Chicago 10 is a passionate, fully engaging retrospective of the times: the rage, the absurdist comedy, the radicals’ courage and their iconic personalities. It is, by necessity, only a capsule version of the trial, which lasted for months. In the end, the defendants were acquitted of conspiracy, though some were convicted on other charges. All of the convictions were reversed on appeal.

The ruinous war dragged on for another seven years, ending four years after Nixon announced “the end is in sight.” And Abbie Hoffman died alone in 1989 after swallowing 150 phenobarbital pills. His former co-defendant Tom Hayden, who did not attend the funeral, told the New York Times he thought Hoffman found “life in the ‘80s irrelevant…facing old age without seeing significant social change.”

Originally appeared in the Cleveland Free Times.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sweet, Not Sticky

Caramel, the debut feature of Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki, is set in Beirut, but doesn’t reference bombs, war or political strife. For that alone it is remarkable, because the beleaguered capital city, which has been called the “Paris of the East,” should be known for its interesting, cosmopolitan culture.

Labaki captures the city in all its messy, contradictory beauty in this modest comedy about several women who work at or are customers of a neighborhood beauty salon. The exotically pretty beautician Layale (Labaki) is involved with a married man. She eagerly awaits his phone calls, dropping everything to meet with her lover, who is never seen onscreen. She worries about what her parents, who wonder why she is still unmarried, would think if they knew. Athletic-looking Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) is attracted to women, particularly a mysterious customer (Fatmeh Safa) with long, Cher-like hair. The ritual of shampooing becomes a sensual act between Rima and the mystery woman.

Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri) is engaged to marry Bassam (Ismail Antar), a Muslim from a traditional family. Nisrine panics because she’s not a virgin, a circumstance that could jeopardize her marriage. Nisrine decides to have her hymen surgically repaired, a controversial practice known as “re-virgin surgery.”

One of the salon’s regular customers is Jamale (Gisèle Aouad), a divorced actress who is so desperate to avoid growing old she affixes Scotch tape to her face for auditions. Rose (Sihame Haddad), a tailor who owns the shop next door, is burdened with the care of her mentally ill older sister, Lili (Aziza Semaan), who has a penchant for collecting pieces of waste paper from the streets, believing they are love letters.

The preview trailer for Caramel makes it look like a colorful, zany farce in the mode of Pedro Almodóvar, but it really is a rather melancholy work. The stories are laced with sadness and punctuated by the conflicts and contradictions of Lebanon’s culture: between Muslim and Christian faiths, Arabic and French languages, and modern and traditional values. Nisri and her fiancé sit talking in a car, where a soldier questions them because it is an “indecent activity” for unmarried people to sit in a car together. When Layale searches for a hotel where she can have a private anniversary celebration with her lover, each desk clerk demands identification to prove she is married.

The caramel of the title refers to a depilation method popular in the Middle East that employs a mixture of melted sugar, water and lemon juice. Layale performs a caramel bikini wax on her lover’s wife (Fadia Stella), who comes to the salon in search of the treatment which, for the record, looks as painful as any Western technique.

The movie is at its best when depicting the gentle ballet of missed romantic opportunity. In one poetic scene, Layale talks on the phone to her lover, while Youssef (Adel Karam), the shy policeman who admires her, watches from his window and pretends he’s the man Layale is talking to.

There is visual poetry, too, in the bittersweet story of Rose. One afternoon a dapper older gentleman, Charles (Dimitri Stancofski) walks into her shop requesting alterations to an old suit. He eccentrically insists that she make the trousers too short. A nascent romance develops between them, and Rose finally consents to having her hair colored at the salon. Her hair dyed a garish red, Rose sits excitedly before the mirror, applying makeup in preparation for meeting Charles. Lili, locked in her room, whines and berates her, and Rose sadly realizes that romance cannot be hers. Labaki’s direction is lyrical, crosscutting Rose preparing for the date with Charles, waiting patiently at the café. Rose wipes off her makeup, and Charles picks up his hat and leaves.

Nabaki is a promising director with evident talent, so there is no particular pleasure in reporting that this this gentle movie is somewhat underwhelming. With more character and story development, and some more laughs, it would be a great success. As it is, Caramel is a sweet movie that can be admired for raising a window on daily life in Lebanon beyond the familiar grim headlines.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.