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Va, vis et deviens (2005)
Fascinating, Moving Story of a Falasha
Twenty-four hours after seeing this extraordinary, multi-layered film about a boy who is airlifted out of Ethiopia and brought to Israel, I am still reviewing images in my mind and wondering at the courage and audacity that must have been necessary to bring this story to the screen.
Salomon was nine years old, living in a desperate refugee camp in Sudan. In late 1984, there was a covert Israeli-American operation to save Ethiopian Jews, known as Falashas, by airlifting them to Israel. The Falashas, are a small branch of the Diaspora. But as they lined up for their exodus, Salomon's mother tells him firmly to "go, live and become", the title of the movie. She saw in the exodus an opportunity for her son to escape the death, disease, famine and civil war that were ravaging Ethiopia. Salomon's mother would stay behind.
The trauma of being told by his mother to leave was already strong stuff. But there is more; Salomon is not even a Falasha. So the arrival in modern Israel is a double shock for him. However, Salomon becomes Schlomo, and we see that he is a quick learner. He learns Hebrew and, when he is adopted by a bi-lingual French-Hebrew family, he learns French, too.
However, Schlomo has a persistent and profound desire to see his mother again. He is wounded. On top of that injury, he has to deal with racism and bigotry in Israel, while hiding the fact that he is not a Falasha. Schlomo carries a lot of emotional baggage, but he has some good people rooting for him. Like the Yarom and Yael, the couple who adopt Schlomo, and Sara, the girl who has him firmly in her sights. The story of Schlomo's trials and tribulations is moving on several levels.
What makes this film audacious is that it confronts the question "who is a Jew". The answer is not self-evident. Indeed, the question has been the subject of impassioned debate in Israel for years. The Falashas are just one case study. It is simply remarkable that someone would make a film that touches on this issue. Bravo!
25th Hour (2002)
Brilliant Portrayal of Regret
I haven't read David Benioff's novel, but I understand that the screenplay, also written by Benioff, is close to the book. With all due respect to Spike Lee, this isn't his story. But he is the one who runs with it by pulling together the actors, script, music, photography, etc., to make this a deeply moving and believable portrayal of someone who blew it and is about to pay the consequences. IMHO Spike Lee succeeds brilliantly with Benioff's material.
As I see it, this is a story about a group of people who have screwed up their lives to one degree or another. Of course, Monty has screwed up royally. So, in a smaller way, have Monty's father and Monty's friends, played by Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Life is about making choices. And often those choices are the wrong ones. This story is about `could'a - should'a - would'a'. There's no happy end here.
Spike Lee's direction, Terence Blanchard's score, and the high-quality acting all combine to get the mood of this melancholy film just right. Twenty-four hours after watching the film, the mood is lingering. I like films that succeed in making you think, as this one does. Bravo!
Fatou la Malienne (2001)
French Culture Clash
When we meet Fatou, she is a beautiful, lively Parisian girl who is turning 18 and finishing high school. She works part-time at a hair salon and dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Fatou was born in Paris and has never been to Africa from where her parents came decades before.
At the family dinner table, the conversation turns to Fatou's post-graduation plans. She is ready to face the world, but she is told that she is not mature until she is married. Before she knows it, a husband (a cousin) is found and preparations are made for the wedding. When Fatou finds out that her marriage is arranged, she objects. However, the wheels of African tradition are in motion and cannot be stopped simply because Fatou is not ready yet. This is the set up for a heart-wrenching clash of cultures.
This film works because Fatou is fresh and full of life. She is completely believable. Meanwhile, her extended family expresses African traditions in the Parisian setting with firm conviction, colour and joy. Finally, the story works because the designated husband is not a bad person as such. From his point of view, he is exercising his traditional rights. There are some scenes that make one wonder about the value of tradition.
The film falls apart in the final ten minutes as it searches for an unlikely happy end. Fatou's predicament is not unusual in today's increasingly multi-racial and multi- cultural Europe. There are countless stories of young women caught between the requirements of family tradition and honour, and their own dreams and aspirations. All too often, they end unhappily or even tragically. Fatou presents the problem in a way that really makes one think.
Warning: Fatou and her girlfriends speak Parisian slang that would be a challenge for anyone not fluent in French.
High Fidelity (2000)
I've watched this movie twice this weekend, and I could easily see it again. It is a pleasure to watch such good acting and direction, even if the story revolves around a fellow in the process of maturing. I particularly liked Iben Hjejle's portrayal of Rob's latest girlfriend, Laura. She is completely believable as the girlfriend ho seems to have matured six months ahead of Rob.
Of course, Jack Black's Barry electrifies the record store, but he stops short of going over the top. He is perfectly balanced by Todd Louiso's deadpan Dick. Fortunately, these guys are around to relieve us from the Rob's self-centered examination of his failed relationships.
I haven't read the book (yet), but I appreciate characters who aren't afraid to say "I don't know", because they are still groping their way to the next stage in their lives. So much of the dialogue feels realistic.
Finally, the music provides a terrific backdrop. People change; styles change. At one point, Rob is dismissive of Peter Frampton, but his ears open up when he hears "Baby I Love Your Way" interpreted by Lisa Bonet's Marie De Salle. The same is true of Barry's rendition of a Marvin Gaye tune. Growing and maturing is all about seeing, hearing and feeling things that you weren't aware of before. This film conveys that process wonderful by weaving music into the story of Rob's love life. Bravo!
Restons groupés (1998)
French Road Movie in U.S. Southwest
This comedy was triggered by the real story of a group of French tourists stranded in the southwestern US when their tour operator went bankrupt. In this film, the tour guide tries heroically to keep up the appearances of a dream tour as the inconveniences grow into disaster. For example, they are steered to a yellow school bus instead of the air-conditioned coach they expected. Everyone goes along with the program with varying degrees of fuss. Like the tourists, the audience has to be good natured about the inconveniences. At times, we have to suspend credulity, as when the group camps out in a swanky hotel suite, or when they camp out in the desert. But then we are rewarded with some lovely vistas of the southwest, including Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, and Monument Valley.
When we are not admiring the scenery, we get to watch the different characters - the young couple, the old communist couple, the bourgeois couple, the journalist, the tour guide, the chain-smoking woman, the black gym instructor, etc. - interact and reveal their individual stories and pet peeves.
The film is careful to refrain from criticism of American culture. However, it does poke jabs at the French. You would have to be fairly familiar with France and the French (and the language) to appreciate the digs. That makes it a French road movie with an American backdrop.
The one character that is unfortunately left undeveloped is the Latino (presumably Mexican) bus driver. One wonders what he thought of these crazy French tourists.
Enemy of the State (1998)
Gripping - Got My Attention
I stumbled onto this thriller while channel surfing in an Istanbul hotel room. I missed the first 20 minutes, but it didn't take long to be drawn into the story. In fact, the action is so fast and gripping that I didn't dare get up to take a pee for fear of missing something. Now that's gripping!
Earlier today I saw a report on cameras no larger than the size of a pill that can make a movie of your digestive tract, from mouth to anus. Now if such miniature devices are already a reality, then some of the tracking technology used in this film must be close to reality - maybe too close for comfort.
Forget the silly story; enjoy the music.
In the middle of a classical music competition, Remi Bonnet, a brilliant young pianist, switches from Chopin to salsa. The highbrow audience has a fit. People start throwing things. The judges faint. And Remi's piano teacher tells him that his career as a pianist is ruined. Remi kisses the bust of Chopin, asks for forgiveness, and heads for Paris. The stage is set in the first three minutes of `Salsa'.
Remi is dying to be a salsa musician. We will never know how or why Remi became so hooked on latino music. Nor do we really find out how Nathalie, a dour parisian travel agent who he meets in Paris, is transformed into a superb, sexy salsa dancer capable of winning a dance contest on the first try. But we don't really care, because this is a musical comedy looking for every opportunity to show off music and dance. And that's not bad at all.
`Salsa' reminds me of `Round Midnight', Bertrand Tavernier's homage to Dale Turner and the American jazz musicians who came to Paris in the 1950's. There, too, it is the story of a Frenchman who adores 'exotic' music from the other side of the Atlantic. Of course, `Round Midnight' is serious, whereas `Salsa' is a cliche-ridden comedy about one Frenchman's desire to join the fun that Cubans in contemporary Paris are having. Don't take it too seriously; enjoy the music.
Beautiful music. Alice in Wonderland, Japanese style.
We saw the French version, `Le Voyage de Chihiro', first in the cinema and again on DVD. What a marvelous film on the Alice in Wonderland theme! The film begins with 10 year-old Chihiro on the back seat of the family Audi as they drive to their new home in the suburbs. They soon find themselves at a dead end with a tunnel ahead of them. Fearless dad leads mom and Chihiro through the tunnel which takes them into an idyllic countryside where discover a ghost village. Chihiro wanders off while her parents sit down to eat. When she comes back they are transformed, and her adventures begin. Chihiro soon meets someone who tells her what she has to do to get back to the real world. The music, scored by Joe Hisaishi, makes this film a pleasure to watch. The scene of Chihiro riding the train across a water-logged landscape is an example of how well the music and drawings go together. Lovely.
No Man's Land (2001)
Realistic war film
Brilliant. It feels like the right balance between comedy and tragedy. And, though I have fortunately never fought in a war, this presentation of a microscopic event in the great scheme of things seems very realistic. It's not easy to strike the right balance and in a way that is interesting and pertinent. Danis Tanovic and his crew have succeeded brilliantly.