Movie Review: The Idol by Hany Abu-Assad

The New York Times, in its review of Ben Ehrenreich’s book The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine,  posted the picture below:

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photograph by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

It is a photograph of unbridled joy, curiosity and innocence set in a refugee camp against the bombed out ruins of Gaza.  The happiness of childhood trumps–at least in this moment–the nastiness of the adult world around them.

This photograph reminds me very much of the first half of Hany Abu Assad’s film The Idol (Ya Tayr Al Tayer). It is a fictionalized account of the true story of Mohammed Assaf, the Palestinian wedding singer who sneaked across the border from his Gaza refugee camp and traveled to Cairo to compete in Arab Idol (the Arab version of “American Idol”). The film is divided neatly into two halves. (Though it is an awkward transition from the first to the second half.)

The first-half begins with a group of young children, riding their bikes, running from bullies, scraping together money, fishing (and then cooking and selling those fish). There is a sense of pure joy and freedom and hope. Except for the background of bombed-out buildings, exposed rebar, enormous piles of rubble and trash and ubiquitous destruction, the scenes could have been written for Hal Roach’s Little Rascals.

the kids

All photos from “The Idol” press kit.

The children want to form a band. The 10-year old Mohammed (Qais Atallah) and his 12-year old tom-boy sister Nour (Hiba Atallah) recruit their friends and begin performing. Mohammed’s talent is evident; his voice is mature and controlled beyond his age. His sister’s charm and grit and ambition push the band forward, and they begin getting hired to play at weddings. (Nour’s being female is a problem. They cannot get hired if they have a female in the band and no one would hire them without her musicality. So she hangs in the background, behind the others, playing guitar and wearing her ever-present backwards baseball cap.)

Young Mohammed (Qais Atallah)and his sister Nour (Hibba Attala)

And they are good. Carried by Mohammed’s voice.

When Nour collapses from kidney failure, the band dissolves, but Mohammed vows to earn enough money singing to get her treatment–thus the quest to appear on Arab Idol. The actual quest begins the second half of the film when Mohammed (now played by Tawfeek Barhom) is 18.

Life hasn’t changed much in the seven years that have elapsed. It may have gotten worse. There are still power shortages, travel restrictions, destruction, hopelessness.  But Mohammed is determined, especially when encouraged by the girl he met while his sister was getting dialysis.

This is not a spoiler. It is the fact that the film is based on. Against, incredible odds, Mohammed Assaf rises to the top of the competition. And it is here that one witnesses the true joy of the film.

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Mohammed Assaf (Tawfeek Barhom) on “Arab Idol”

Every neighborhood, every household, every town square is filled with proud Gazans watching Mohammed on Arab Idol. Their pride and joy is palpable.  There is cheering, fireworks, embraces, flag waving. These people have not had a lot to cheer for, and now they do and it is cause for celebration.

It would be disingenuous to say that The Idol is not a political film, for of course it is. The politics, however, are subtle and act as a patina to a classic story of realizing one’s dreams. It is a joyous film, all the more remarkable for taking place in what appears to be such a joy killing space. And the realizations of Mohammed’s dreams are felt vicariously by the crowds that gather around televisions, big and small, and watch his ascent.

Hany Abu-Assad, who shares writing credits with Sameh Zoabi, has crafted an emotional film that never gets schmaltzy. There is angst and happiness, frustration and success, danger and death and victory and love. But it is all done with an even-hand and a simple narrative. Again, the politics are there–you cannot see Gaza and not wonder how or why? But, that is never the thrust of the film.

It is rare these days to see a film set in the Middle-East in which afterwards one comes out of the theater smiling and happy. Hany Abu-Assad has created such a film. And our joy is not simply for Mohammed Assaf, but for the Gazan people themselves. Sure their lives will remain unchanged for the most part, but the music competition has given them something to be proud of.

Movie Review: Maggie’s Plan, directed by Rebecca Miller

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Poster for Maggie’s Plan

A general statement would be that I greatly admire Ethan Hawke’s movies. (His “serious” movies. I’ve never seen his more commercial work.) Just as true is the fact that I rarely like the characters Ethan Hawke plays in these movies. Too often they seem to me to be self-involved posers. To wit, while I truly love the three Richard Linklater films (Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, and Before Midnight), I do not like the Ethan Hawke character, particularly in the last. (As his success as a writer grows in these movies, so does his self-involvement and pomposity.) I believe that Hawke himself to be an interesting, knowledgeable and intellectual artist, honest about his art and serious about his decisions, but playing one on film is another thing. My god, the most annoyingly self-centered intellectual twit of all time is Hamlet, and Ethan Hawke’s version of the character is true to form. Though I love this version of Hamlet, I’m pretty glad when Hawke’s Hamlet gets it in the end (by gun this time rather than sword.)

Having said that, Maggie’s Plan is a sweet, whimsical film, filled with quirky performances and centered around the Ethan Hawke typical role–a wannabe novelist, anguishing over his work, and pretty sure the world revolves around him.

'Maggie's Plan' Film Set

Greta Gerwig as Maggie. Photo Credit: Kristin Callahan/ACE/INFphoto.com Ref: infusny-220

Quickly, the film concerns a young girl in New York, Maggie (Greta Gerwig) who wants to get pregnant. She finds a potential sperm donor–a friend from her undergraduate days in Wisconsin (Travis Fimmel). However, at the same time she meets  John (Ethan Hawke) a  professor at New York’s New School where she also works.

And so, they begin an affair.

John is writing a novel, and is not getting the support he wants from his wife Georgette, a superstar intellectual played by Julianne Moore, who hilariously uses an accent that channels Madeline Kahn from her Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles days. John begins having Maggie read his work-in-progress, which is basically how he seduces her.

Hawke and Gerwig

Quickly Maggie and John get married, they have a child, and just as quickly she wants to give him back to his wife. His self-centeredness is simply too much to cope with. So elaborate plans are made to “return him.” (This could be the “Maggie’s plan” of the title, or it could be her strategy to have a child.)The plot to get the original husband and wife together is humorous and flawed and is the gist of the film.

Helping Maggie along are her two friends Tony and Felicia, played by Bill Hader and Maya Rudolf. Both of these actors continue to grow their talents in a variety of interesting projects, and in Maggie’s Plan, they make the most of the minutes they are on the screen.

Maggie herself is quirky and likeable and somewhat innocent. Her wardrobe (which seems to be what can only be called 1950s Wisconsin-chic) places her as an outsider in savvy New York, and her contact with the intimidating Georgette only underscores this.

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Maggie (Greta Gerwig) reveals her plan to Georgette (Julianne Moore)

Maggie’s Plan is light fare–so much lighter than director Rebecca Miller’s previous work. There is a sweet and satisfying (though hinted at) ending and there are some wonderful performances. (Again, Julianne Moore is hilarious, and seems as if she is enjoying playing so over-the-top.)

It is not the kind of film where one goes for  coffee afterwords to deconstruct and analyze it–and it is not intended to be such. Maggie’s Plan is simply a pleasant way to pass a few hours in the summer.

 

 

 

Movie Review Monday: Wiener-Dog, directed and written by Todd Solenz

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“Wiener-Dog”  illustration 2016 by jpbohannon                                                                                                                                                       (based on one-line Picasso drawing of his dog LUMP)

I have always had a thing against dachshunds. I believe it stems from cartoon watching when I was a child. Back then, if you were a dachshund in a cartoon, you were typecast: you had to wear a monocle, smoke a cigarette in a long cigarette holder and dress like a Nazi officer. (German Shepherds were often the guard dogs, the grunts, but the dachshunds were ALWAYS the officers.) Anyway, the prejudice stuck, and I am still not fond of dachshunds.

So against my better instincts, I went to see Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog. A quirky series of vignettes, performed by an interesting cast, and tied together by a dachshund who is passed from one owner to the next. And while the dog itself has little to do with the different stories, it is the tie that binds, so to speak.

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Movie poster for Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog

We begin with a young boy (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a cancer survivor, whose father brings the dachshund home to the boy as a companion. The parents are self-absorbed; the boy is understandably interested in death and life and birth; and the mother, played by Julie Delpy, tries to answer his questions honestly. However, she has difficulty with this. (The story she tells to explain why it is important to have the dog spayed is extraordinary in its outlandishness. At one point in the story, the man in front of me moaned at the political incorrectness in her tale.)

The parents cannot handle the dog in their pristine house–who has gotten violently and graphically sick–and quickly take it to the vet to be put down. Here the vet’s assistant (Gretta Gerwig) steals the dog and brings it home. While shopping for dog-food, she meets an old high-school friend (Kieran Culkin) with a heroin problem. He is driving across country to Ohio to inform his brother of their father’s death. For some reason, she decides to accompany him. The dachshund sits on her lap throughout most of the trip and does nothing. Much like Gerwig herself.

Although the wiener-dog is given to Culkin’s brother and his wife in Ohio (Connor Long and Bridget Brown) at the end of Gerwig’s vignette, it next appears in New York City with a film-school instructor, Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito). Schmerz is waiting for his big break; his screenplay has been sitting in offices in Hollywood and it is obvious that the agents are not taking him seriously.

He is also greatly disliked by his students who feel he is a dinosaur and has nothing to offer their uber-hip selves. (One hipster film-student explains just how out of touch Schmerz is by claiming he probably has a box-set of Curb Your Enthusiasm, still watches Seinfeld, and thinks Woody Allen is terrific. Wow!)

And while DeVito’s character puts the dog in an adorable yellow dress and walks her through Manhattan on his way to school, his story is sad and does not end well.

And so somehow the wiener-dog  appears next with a curmudgeonly old woman (Ellen Burstyn). She is bitter about her life and her life choices. After her drug-addled granddaughter visits and asks for a very large check to help finance her artist boyfriend, (which she writes), the old-woman is visited by a series of versions of herself–selves she would have been, if she had been different. (This hearkens back to Danny DeVito story, where the teacher is ridiculed for his screenwriting mantra “what if.”)

This story does not end well either.

Wiener-Dog is beautifully shot, particularly the scenes of the little boy and the dog, of the dog and Ellen Burstyn, and the suburban landscapes that Gerwig and Culkin drive through. Full of light and color, they capture an America that always seems to have something hidden right under the surface. And the performances of Keaton Nigel Cooke, Danny DeVito, and Ellen Burstyn are poignant and memorable.

And there is a jokey Intermission sequence where a large Dachshund walks across the American landscape to a cowboy-type theme song, “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog.” It is fun and silly and for a moment takes our mind off some of the more unsettling ideas that lie beneath the tales that we are seeing.

Wiener-Dog is described as a dark comedy. I am discovering that the more I think about it, the darker it becomes.

 

Bowler Hats: Chaplin and Bloom…Sally Bowles and Sabina

A few decades ago, I remember having to read a piece on “the sociology of clothing in the Victorian era.” The author’s intent was to show that fashion had a subtext. I remember clearly the argument about men’s hats. The thesis was that the height of a man’s hat in Victorian England was proportionate to his status on the social scale.  i.e. The society toffs wore tall top hats, the navvies and farmers wore flat caps.

I thought of this again after a conversation about “bowlers.” A friend and I had just finished reading Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and were commenting on the bowler hat that the character Sabina is attached to (it reminds her of her grandfather) and which she often wears during sex.

“It’s a silly hat,” my friend said. “There is really nothing sexy about it.”

Silly or sexy?  I’d state that both things are true, depending on who’s wearing it.

For Christmas this year, my young nephew gave me a tee-shirt imprinted with the text of Joyce’s Ulysses on it. The text is manipulated to depict Leopold Bloom’s mustache and bowler hat. (Though I argue that Bloom would never wear his hat tilted at such a jaunty angle.)

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Leopold Bloom t-shirt

Now, although the book ends with Bloom’s wife repeatedly affirming her husband’s worth (“yes,  yes I said yes I will Yes.”), throughout much of the novel, Bloom is a figure of ridicule.  And a bowler hat only underscores that. (In truth, those who most ridicule him wear flat caps or no hats at all.)

When I was little my parents enjoyed Laurel and Hardy. (How politically incorrect we all 354845-laurel-and-hardywere then: I didn’t know their names were “Laurel and Hardy” until much later. My mom had always called them “Fats and Skinny.”)  They both wore bowlers, doffing them in times of embarrassment or playing with them in times of nervousness.

Now, Chaplin’s bowler represents something else. As the Little Tramp, he is at the very bottom of the social scale, and yet his dignity, manners and goodheartedness far outshine those socially above him. Perhaps, it is that chiasmus between the tramp and gentle-behavior and “gentlemen” and their boorishness that the bowler suggests. It could also simply be that the “little tramp” is wearing whatever has been tossed aside.  Nevertheless, it is part of his comic ensemble. In the film Chaplin, there is a marvelous scene where Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin, first puts together his iconic “Little Tramp” costume, beginning with the hat.

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But then you have the women. On the female, the bowler hat moves from an object of comedy or ridicule to something sexy, even forbidding.

It seems in every dance revue–whether a toddlers’ dance recital or the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall–there is one number where the females are dressed in stockings and shorts, tux shirts and ties…and a bowler hat. The hat acts as a prop, an accessory and the dancers put them on and off, dance with them held in front or waving above their heads.

In the film Cabaret, Sally Bowles is played by Liza Minnelli–perhaps the greatest role of her career. And while the film is certainly different than the play –and the novels from whichcabaret it was drawn–it is Minnelli that people most closely associate with Cabaret and Sally Bowles. Straddling a chair, her bowler hat rakishly tilted on her head, Bowles lustily sings and performs at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin as the Third Reich begins its ascent. She–and the cabaret she works at–are the very symbols of the sexuality and decadence that the Nazi’s demonize in their rise to power, symbols of the “other” that the Nazis want to purge.

And in Minnelli’s performance, it is the bowler hat that represents this decadence–a symbol of transgression, of otherness, of living life as SHE wants it.

(Please note: I know that there have been extraordinary actresses who have taken on the role of Sally Bowles on the stage, from Julie Harris and Judi Dench to Natasha Richardson and Brooke Shields to Emma Stone and Michelle Williams. But still it is Minnelli’s film version that has the most resonance with the most people.)

Just as Sally Bowles performs her cabaret in Berlin during the Nazis’ rise to power, so too is Sabina creating her art as the Soviet Union crushes the Czech Spring in Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Although we have moved from 1920 Berlin to 1960s Prague,  the same tensions exist–the forces of love, freedom, and humanity in opposition to the bureaucratic autocracy of the State. This time the state is the USSR.

For the painter Sabina, her bowler is a sort of fetish–a memory of her grandfather and a quirk of her sexuality. It is very much a part of her.   Kundera describes Sabina’s hat as such:

The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina’s life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. … each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.

Thus the bowler hat has apotheosized from a mere garment and quirky accessory to something much more. And in the politically charged world of Prague in 1968, that tumblr_mdy9zuvYH01rhlu7wo1_500something more is crucial to life, to a sense of independence, to a sense of identity. And on Lena Olin, who played Sabina in the 1988 film version of the book, it also looks incredibly sexy.

So whether it accompanies John Cleese’s ungainly stride within the Ministry of Silly Walks or Lena Olin steaming up scenes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one finds that the bowler fills both extremes–from the ridiculous to the erotic.  That often seems to be the divide.

That is until you bring in Alex from A Clockwork Orange. And then it’s a whole different story…

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Quote # 52: DFW defining “Lynchian”

“David Lynch” illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

 

 

 

“A good 65% of the people in metropolitan bus terminals between the hours of midnight and 6:00 A.M. tend to qualify as [David] Lynchian figures–flamboyantly unattractive, enfeebled, grotesque, freighted with a woe out of all proportion to evident circumstances.”

David Foster Wallace defining “Lynchian”as quoted in
David Lynch: The Man from Another Place by David Lim

Video Poem #2: “To a woman watching Desk Set while making mushroom soup”

I saw a friend of mine whom I rarely see anymore.  We used to work closely together and were in each others’ company continually throughout the workday. I had an office next to hers, a class across the hall from her, and, at one time, a homeroom within her clay studio.

But times change, careers take different paths, and schedules get more and more hectic. And so, I rarely see her at all, maybe three or four times a quarter.

But I saw her a few weeks ago and she told me that she had spent that Sunday–a lovely, rainy fall day– making mushroom soup while the television in front of her ran the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film, Desk Set.

The  combination of the two intrigued me. And so I came up with the title “To a Woman Watching Desk Set while Making Mushroom Soup.” I loved it. I had nothing else but the title, but I loved the contrast of a fog of steam from a soup pot and the clarity of Hepburn and Tracy (in their first color film together.)

I played with the title for a while and then with the idea.  I combined soup recipes with snippets from the film and with my own take on that legendary Hollywood couple.

I had my poem where I thought I wanted, and so I decided to make a film.

So here it is, enjoy. It is a work in progress in a technique that I am completely new at. (But I am enjoying it madly.)

 

 

 

Movie Review: Another Woman by Woody Allen–claiming a masterpiece

Poster for Woody Allen's 1988 film Another Woman

Poster for Woody Allen’s 1988 film Another Woman

In Woody Allen’s film Stardust Memories, a Martian invader gives Woody Allen’s character, Sandy Bates, the following advice: “You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.”  At the time, one didn’t have to talk to aliens  to hear some people saying the same thing about Allen’s movies. They wanted funny, funnier, funniest.  Raised on Take the Money and a Run, Bananas, and Sleeper,  his fans wanted more of the sameantic, bumbling, wise-cracking Woody Allen.

And instead he created some dramatic masterpieces, which will long be remembered after Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.. has faded into irrelevance.

Another Woman appeared in 1988. In the eleven years between Annie Hall (1977) and Another Woman, Allen had written and directed eleven films (and starred in eight of them) Two years earlier in 1986, he had had great success–both critically and with the public–with Hannah and Sisters. 

However, there seemed to be a pattern with the public’s acceptance of these films at the time. Generally, fewer people went to his movies in which he did not act. (They needed their clown.) And the films in which he did not appear were usually his more serious work. Or at least, his “heavier” work. And thus, Another Woman failed to attract the audiences that most of his previous work had been garnering.

All of which is a shame, because Another Woman is a masterpiece.

Gena Rowlands in Another Woman

Gena Rowlands in Another Woman

Geena Rowlands plays Marion, chairman of the philosophy department, successful author, and a woman who believes she is better off not examining her own life and choices. (An odd choice in itself for a philosopher.) She is married to an eminent cardiologist and has a close relationship with his sixteen-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. He relationship with her brother, her father, and even with herself is not as close nor honest.

In order to write undisturbed, Marion rents an apartment. (New York cardiologists must do very well because Marion and his apartment is gorgeous, as is her “get-away” apartment where she writes. Apartment prices in NYC must have been quite cheaper in 1988 than they are today!)

The building has a quirk in the ventilation and unless she puts sofa cushions up against the ventilators, she can hear everything in the psychiatrist’s office next door.  Which she soon begins to do purposefully. Removing the cushions, sends Marion down a rabbit-hole, a path which she is not sure she wants to pursue.

She becomes obsessed with one of the psychiatrist’s patients, a frail, pregnant, unhappy woman named Hope (Mia Farrow). From what she says, Hope is certainly unhappy, quite insecure and perhaps, even, suicidal. After a while, Hope’s overheard questioning of the choices she has made in life, leads Marion on a journey of her own self-discovery. And it is revelatory.

That Woody Allen reveres and has been influenced by the great European film-makers, especially of Ingmar Bergman is well known. (Ten years earlier in 1978 Allen made Interiors, a particular homage to the films of Bergman.) Another Woman is again inspired by Bergman, particularly his film Wild Strawberries. There are similarities in plot–the main characters must examine the coldness with which they have lived their lives–and technique–there are similar surreal dream sequences and scenes where the main characters are able to enter the scenes of their childhood.

And yet what makes Another Woman a masterpiece is not the bows to Bergman that Allen deftly offered, but the extraordinary performance he had engendered in Gena Rowlands. In several very long takes, the camera focuses on Rowlands’ face at different times as she listens to the patients next door. There is more emotional revelation in those moments than most actors can depict in an entire movie.

In fact, this quiet intensity seems startling compared to the Oscar-nominated performances she gave for her director husband, John Cassavetes. In films such as A Woman Under the Influence and Gloria, Rowlands exploded her emotions onto the screen. For Woody Allen, there is a intense quietness to her acting, an interiority that she allows us to see. And which draws us in to her pain and her self-examination.

The title Another Woman can be though of as referencing various things: Marion is the “other woman” for whom her husband left his wife; there is “another woman” with whom her husband is now involved; Hope is “another woman” whose analysis seems to be applicable to Marion; she has spurned passion in the past for comfort and security, and now “another woman” is enjoying the spark of that zest for life; and Marion herself is, at the end of the film, “another woman” than what she had earlier believed.

The Martians in Stardust Memories might have wanted funnier jokes, but with Another Woman they couldn’t have wanted a better film.