Friday, February 27, 2015

FILM REVIEW: EASTERN BOYS

A scene from Eastern Boys.
Security in western arms

By John Esther

"Her Majesty the Street" (AKA Part 1) is filled with young males from Eastern Europe. Uzbekistan, Macedonian, Russian, Romanian and Ukrainian teenagers and young men swarm and play together on the streets around the Gare du Nord train station and nearby shopping centers.

Teasing each other like less-cultured people tend to do, protecting each other from the authorities who would deport them, and scheming together to survive, these Slavic transients have fled the harsh conditions of their home countries and landed in Paris.

For most of part one, viewers essentially eavesdrop and survey them during another sunny day in gay Paris. There are no subtitles. For all intents and puposes they are to remain strangers until the friend is met -- or a hired lay as this case may be.

Obviously somebody with money, Daniel (Olivier Rabourdi) approaches one of the young men, Marek (Kirill Emelyanov). Through broken English and French the two manage to arrange a rendezvous for the next day at Daniel's house.

When the next day comes, it is not what Daniel had planned. He has been conned. Surrounded by strangers in his own home, the home invasion is a rather intense scene. If Daniel makes the wrong move he could be hurt. To complicate matters, Daniel is also a bit aroused, at least excited about the change in events and having so many young people around him.

A few days later, Marek comes back, looking to cash in on Daniel's need for a young man. Seemingly unphased by what has transpired, a la the home invasion, Daniel agrees and they have one of the most awkward sex scenes you could imagine. Could it be anymore obvious that Marek is only doing this for money? Perhaps Daniel appreciates the dettachment?

As weeks pass by, the relationship changes in its arrangement and in its tone. It seems these two men are looking for is something a lot more sophisticated than a client-prostitute relationship. Could they be friends or something else instead? Of course, back at the cheap hotel where the undocumented live, this does not bode well with Boss (Daniil Vorobyev) and the rest of the gang. Comrades for life!

Set in four parts, director Robin Campillo's Eastern Boys tackles solidarity and solitude, economic class, language and lingering ages -- managing to remain engaging throughout most of its two hours-plus running time.

Granted, none of the characters is particularly likeable and their motives seem less sympathetic -- though their pasts have obviously scarred them. Marek's need for Daniel is rather obvious. Daniel provides Marek income and some stability. As a price, Marek must offer his body, but he seems so uninterested in what is being done to his body, you wonder if he has endured worst. Well, at least psychologically he has.

Daniel's motives are certainly less clear and they somewhat change unexpectedly in the film. The trope is not entirely convincing but somehow forgivable as the narrative actually becomes more interesting henceforth. But, then again, he has been a rather unpredictable character all along.









FILM REVIEW: BLUEBIRD

A scene from Bluebird.

Clipped wings

By Don Simpson

As Lesley (Amy Morton) does the routine end-­of-­day inspection of her school bus, she becomes distracted by the presence of the titular bluebird. As quickly as the little bird flies away, this fleeting event creates a tsunami of consequences for Leslie. Found to have been negligent in her job duties, it is Lesley’s inaction that leaves a young boy hospitalized in a coma.

The comatose boy’s mother Marla (Louisa Krause) and grandmother (Margo Martindale) need to blame someone, because they certainly do not want to face their own negligence as his guardians. There is no way around the fact that Lesley should have finished checking her bus, but the boy’s family never once called the school, bus company or police to report the child missing. Instead, Marla passed out in her bathtub after a late night of drunken karaoke, never knowing (or caring) if her son was safe.

As it turns out, Marla did not want to have a baby when she was just 17-years-old; but her mother is “religious,” so Marla was forced to have the baby. This choice — or lack thereof — trapped Marla in this northern Maine logging town where she earns a measly paycheck as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant. As an escape, Marla turns habitually to alcohol and drugs; she has all but given up custody of her son to her mother.

Marla sees her lawsuit against Lesley as an opportunity to get out of her financially-constrained rut. Little does Marla know, if she does win the case, there will not be much money to get from Lesley’s family. Lesley will almost definitely lose her job as a bus driver, while Lesley’s husband, Richard (John Slattery), is counting the days until the local paper mill closes, which will render him unemployed as well. With not many other employment opportunities in this economically-ravaged town, Lesley and Richard are destined to lose their house to the bank.

Writer-director Lance Edmands’ film contemplates the economic risk of working in jobs in which you are responsible for other people’s lives. As a bus driver, Lesley probably never thought about what would be at stake if anything happened to one of the children on her bus. All people get distracted while working, yet most of them do not risk a lawsuit or jail time as a result of an innocent ten second distraction. That seems to be a humanly impossible expectation — for someone to never get distracted while they are working. We all make mistakes. The problem is, we are a society who likes to assert blame. We are also a society who loves to sue each other purely for financial gain.

Edmands makes his opinions fairly clear on the matter. As a result, it is difficult not to have some level of sympathy for Lesley and anger towards Marla. That said, Edmands is studious about pointing out Lesley’s — as well as her family’s — faults. They tend to do a lot of stupid things, but so does Marla…and so does everyone in the world. We also see just how riddled by guilt Lesley becomes; she grows increasingly fragile, moving around like a zombie. If only these people could just communicate with each other.

Bluebird is an impressive directorial debut by Edmands, who gets incredibly naturalistic performances from his very capable actors. Edmands ties his characters to the nature that surrounds them; the trees and snow both factoring directly into the emotional struggle of the characters. (One might even conclude that Lesley is being emotionally pulped.) Those very same elements also seclude their town, cutting it off from the rest of the world, leaving them to deal with their own problems. One might think that journalists would flock to cover a story about a young boy who was left alone on a school bus on a cold winter night, but we never see any out-of-towners.

Captured with a frigid blue and green color palate by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, Bluebird is similar in mood and tone to Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter — yes, and both films deal with the passing of guilt, blame and responsibility associated with a school bus. Observing the unique qualities of the natural light during the outdoor scenes, I realized just how few films I have watched that were actually shot in northern Maine during the winter…if any. Then I think, were they crazy?! Shooting in northern Maine in February?! At least they probably did not need to pay for any fake snow.

Monday, February 23, 2015

STAGE REVIEW: SASSY MAMAS

A scene from Sassy Mamas.

Ought um
 
By Ed Rampell
 
Sassy Mamas, by prizewinning playwright Celeste Bedford Walker is a comedy-drama about three longtime girlfriends in Washington, D.C., who, in the autumns of their lives, find themselves flying solo.
 
Hospital administrator Jo Billie (the indomitable Iona Morris, who also helmed this remount) is recently widowed, while Mary’s (Elayn J. Taylor) ambassador husband has broken diplomatic relations with her by throwing Mary to the curb in favor of a younger woman. The never-married, career-driven National Security Adviser Wilhelmina (not Condoleeza), who is played by Honolulu-born actress Denise Dowse, has been too busy pursuing international relations to have a personal relationship. What’s a single woman to do?
 
Prodded by Jo Billie, who appears to be the sassiest of the gal pals, they ponder why it’s socially acceptable for a male to have a much younger female mate, and they decide to “flip the script.” So using their advantages in terms of social status, wealth and position the upper crust trio seek younger sex partners.
 
In the first act it seems as if Sassy Mama will be a raucous, raunchy farce about “cougars” - or, in this case, “black panthers” - and their, shall we say, young “bucks.” But over the course of almost three hours Walker’s two-acter reveals that there’s much more to her characters and plot than just an older woman-younger man paradigm.
 
Let’s just say that cum-plications and hilarity ensue, along with some drama and pathos. Jo Billie, who is portrayed by the youngest and sexiest of the three actresses, acquires a boy toy whom the businesswoman signs a contract with for his sexual services (paging Ms. E.L. James!). LaDonte (Jah Shams) and Jo Billie have an especially high-larious scene involving some hanky-spanky role playing, with the impish Morris wearing a sort of I Dream of Jeannie costume. This sidesplitting sequence is worth the price of admission alone.
 
 
Sassy Mamas runs through March 29 at Theatre Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A., CA 90019. For info: 323-571-3232; Tickets 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Friday, February 20, 2015

FILM NEWS: THE PROGIES 2014 WINNERS

This year's John Garfield Award recipient for Best Actor in a Film: David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma.
Thinking differently
 
By John Esther
 
This week an anonymous member of the Academy declared "Selma has no art to it," and that the decision of its filmmakers to wear a "I Can't Breathe" t-shirt in memorial to Eric Garner's death at the film's premiere was "offensive."
 
Nevermind, for a moment, that this member of an organization that is reportedly 94 percent white is complaining about a protest against police brutality on unarmed black people at the filmmakers' own premiere of their film. Or that Selma is a film about a man, and many others, who stood up against police brutality and were indeed victims of police brutality. Forget that for a second because he or she does not know what he or she is talking about. Selma has plenty of art to it. Otherwise there is no way the James Agee Critics Circle could have awarded it the Trumbo for Best Picture of the year and the film's lead, David Oyelowo the Garfield Award for Best Actor in a film released in the U.S. 2014.
 
That would not be possible. (This person probably thinks the woefully offensive Last Days in Vietnam is one of the best documentaries of the year.)
 
Here are the other winners of the 8th Annual Progies -- in Blue.
 
THE TRUMBO: The Progie Award for BEST PICTURE is named after Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a member of the Hollywood Ten, who was imprisoned for his beliefs and refusing to inform. Trumbo helped break the Blacklist when he received screen credit for Spartacus and Exodus in 1960.
 
Winner: Selma.
 
Other nominations:
Birdman;
Cesar Chavez;
The Congress;
Goodbye to Language;
The Liberator;
Pride;
Two Days, One Night
 
THE GARFIELD: The Progie Award for BEST ACTOR is named after John Garfield, who starred in pictures such as Gentleman’s Agreement and Force of Evil, only to run afoul of the Hollywood Blacklist.
 
Winner: David Oyelowo in Selma.
 
Other nominees:
Benedict Cumbert, The Imitation Game;
Harvey Keitel, The Congress;
Michael Keaton, Birdman;
Eddie Ramierez, The Liberator;
Jeremy Renner, Kill the Messenger;
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything;
Channing Tatum, Foxcatcher;

KAREN MORLEY AWARD: The Progie Award for BEST ACTRESS in a film is named for Karen Morley, co-star of Scarface (1932) and Our Daily Bread (1934). Morley was driven out of Hollywood in the 1930s for her leftist views.

Winner: Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night.

Other nominees:
American Ferrara, Cesar Chavez;
Juianne Moore, Still Alice;
Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer;
Tessa Thompson, Dear White People;

THE RENOIR: The Progie Award for BEST ANTI-WAR FILM is named after the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir, who directed the 1937 anti-militarism masterpiece, Grand Illusion.

Winner: The Imitation Game.

Other nominations:
The Kill Team;
The Unknown Known;
Zero Motivation;

THE GILLO: The Progie Award for BEST PROGRESSIVE FOREIGN FILM is named after the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo, who lensed The Battle of Algiers and Burn!

Winner: Goodbye to Language.

Other nominations:
The Circle;
Human Capital;
The Liberator;
Norte, the End of History;
Two Days, One Night;
 
THE DZIGA: The Progie Award for BEST PROGRESSIVE DOCUMENTARY is named after the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, who directed 1920s nonfiction films such as the Kino Pravda series and The Man With the Movie Camera.

Winner: Citizenfour.

Other nominations:
The Case Against 8;
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia;
The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz;
To Be Takei;
Whitey: The United States of America vs. James J. Bulger;
 
OUR DAILY BREAD AWARD: The Progie Award for the MOST POSITIVE AND INSPIRING WORKING CLASS SCREEN IMAGE is named after King Vidor’s 1934 classic about an American collective farm.

Winner: Pride.

Other nominations:
Cesar Chavez;
The Liberator;
Snowpiercer;
Two Days, One Night;

THE ROBESON: The Progie Award for the BEST PORTRAYAL OF PEOPLE OF COLOR that shatters cinema stereotypes, in light of their historically demeaning depictions onscreen. It is named after courageous performing legend, Paul Robeson, who starred in Song of Freedom and The Proud Valley.

Winner: Dear White People.

Other nominations;
Big Hero 6;
Cesar Chavez;
The Liberator;
Memphis;
A Most Violent Year;
Selma;

THE BUNUEL: The Progie Award for the MOST SLYLY SUBVERSIVE SATIRICAL CINEMATIC FILM in terms of form, style and content is named after Luis Bunuel, the Spanish surrealist who directed The Andalusian Dog, Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Winner (four-way tie): Birdman; Inherent Vice; Nightcrawler; A Trip to Italy.

Other nominations:
The Congress;
Selma;

THE PASOLINI: The Progie Award for BEST PRO-GAY RIGHTS film is named after Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who directed The Gospel According to St. Matthew, The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales.

Winner: Pride.

Other nominations:
The Circle;
The Imitation Game;
Love is Strange;
To Be Takei;
The Way He Looks;

THE LAWSON: The Progie Award for BEST ANTI-FASCIST FILM is named after John Howard Lawson, screenwriter of 1938’s anti-Franco Blockade and the 1940s anti-nazi films Four Sons, Action in the North Atlantic, Sahara and Counter-Attack, and one of the Hollywood Ten.

Winner: Snowpiercer.

Other nominations:
Most Wanted Man;
The Lego Movie;
Norte, the End of History;
Selma;
 
 
THE SERGEI: The Progie Award for LIFETIME PROGRESSIVE ACHIEVEMENT ON- OR OFFSCREEN is named after Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet director of masterpieces such as Potemkin and 10 Days That Shook the World.

Winner: Harry Belafonte.





 
 
 
 

Monday, February 16, 2015

STAGE REVIEW: THE NIGHT ALIVE

Kenneth (Peter O'Meara) in The Night Alive. Photo credit: Michael Lamont.

 
Riders of the storm

By Ed Rampell

A poster from the 1963 movie ,The Great Escape, is a visual cue that provides a vital clue and key to what’s going on in Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive. This one-acter, performed sans intermission during its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, is essentially about five Dubliners who live marginal lives. The onstage action takes place in the untidy “apartment” - without so much as a refrigerator - that middle aged Tommy (Paul Vincent O’Connor) rents from an older guardian of sorts named Maurice (Denis Arndt), who insists on calling it a mere “room” in his Edwardian house. Doc (Dan Donohue) is a 30-ish, dimwitted hanger-on and laborer who drifts between sleeping at his sister’s home, Tommy’s place and a van.

Enter into the pecking order and drab, lonely lives of these three solo men aimless Aimee (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), a 20-something woman with a murky past whom Tommy rides to the rescue of on a white horse, saving this total stranger from a dire predicament. In offering her refuge he turns the three men’s presumably celibate lives upside down. In the process, Tommy believes he comes alive and is being given a second chance at life.

Although, as said, The Night Alive is a one act play, what could pass for, more or less, Act I, is quite low key and uneventful - some might even consider it talky and dull. But things really pick up when Kenneth (Peter O’Meara) enters, stage right, from out of nowhere as a kind of bogeyman, turning things topsy-turvy as we learn more about who Aimee really is, and why she needed sanctuary.

This play is essentially about fringe characters yearning to get away from their boring existences. In particular, Tommy is a study in male menopause and mid-life crisis. Separated from his wife and children, somehow eking out a living by tending to “bits and pieces”, residing in Maurice’s room/apartment, he believes Aimee presents him with the opportunity to break free of the mundane, ho-hum routine of his sexless day-to-day monotony. His legs aren’t so much limbs as they are stumps; clearly, this aging, balding man has seen better days. (But maybe not much better…) The details of his and Aimee’s sex life, or what passes for it, are pretty grim - listen closely (there’s a good joke about what causes “repetitive strain injury”). But it’s better than nothing - Doc offhandedly confesses that he’s impotent, while the forlorn Maurice mourns his deceased wife.

Tommy constructs a wild plan to flee Ireland to start anew with Aimee in a place this reviewer has never before heard referred to as a haven for shattered souls seeking a second lease on life. (Really?) Be that as it may, the aforementioned The Great Escape poster tacked to Tommy’s wall is a pop culture reference to the inner meaning of McPherson’s drama. In that John Sturges World War II classic, Allied POWs plot to escape from a Nazi prison camp. As the “Cooler King,” Steve McQueen (the actor, not the director) nears the border with neutral Switzerland, desperately trying to jump the barbwire fence on a motorcycle in a scene that encompasses humans’ existential struggles for freedom. This sequence is indelibly etched in the mind’s eye of anyone who has ever seen it onscreen, and no one can fail to root for McQueen and his valiant effort to escape from the Nazis to freedom in democratic Switzerland, so near yet so far across the barbed wire.

For Tommy, Aimee is arguably his motorcycle. Will he jump the barbed wire to find freedom?

In any case play is able, ensemble acting is well-directed by Randall Arney, who previously helmed American Buffalo at the Geffen. This seems appropriate, as Alive’s down-and-out characters brought to mind David Mamet’s characters in his 1975 Buffalo. (The interactions between Tommy and Doc are also reminiscent of the relationship between George and Lenny in John Steinbeck’s heartbreaking Of Mice and Men.) Takeshi Kata’s set, with its high ceiling, strikes just the right sordid note of dinginess. Daniel Ionazzi’s lighting comes, well, alive in the mystical grand finale.

O’Meara’s Wolfman-like Kenneth puts the “fear” into McPherson’s drama, which takes unexpected turns. O’Shaughnessy, who previously played the title role in Oscar Wilde’s Salome at the Gate Theatre Dublin, isn’t particularly sexy as Aimee. But perhaps that’s precisely the point: O’Connor invests Tommy with so much desperation and sexual longing that any female in her twenties seems to have the erotic powers of an Aphrodite.

In 2014, Conor McPherson adapted a new version of The Dance of Death for A Noise Within’s L.A. production of Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s 1900 play. The much-touted and awarded Dublin-born McPherson, who previously wrote The Weir, is in the tradition of those great Gaelic scribes, such as Sean O’Casey and James Joyce, and the Welsh Dylan Thomas. McPherson may perpetuate that image of the Irish as storytellers by making the dopey Doc a writer, who scribbles (guess what?) into his notebook, but thankfully, although there is some drinking in Alive, he eschews the stereotype of the Irish as drunks. The Geffen’s production of McPherson’s 2013 play, with its magical realist, enigmatic ending that had theatergoers scratching their noggins (again, this reviewer/roadmapper to inner meanings, refers you to The Great Escape poster and another pop cultural signpost: a rendition of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On), gives Angeleno audiences another opportunity to sample this bard’s vision.     

 

The Night Alive runs through March 15 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., LA CA 90024. For info: 310-208-5454; www.geffenplayhouse.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, January 30, 2015

SUNDANCE 2015: HOMESICK

A scene from Homesick.
Domestic disturbance

By Don Simpson

When first meet the 27-year old Charlotte (Ine Marie Wilmann), she is in the midst of a therapy session. While the session does not reveal much backstory, the scene does inform us about Charlotte’s uncanny ability to avoid talking about her family. Other than expressing her frustration with her parents, as well as her therapist, Charlotte refuses to go into any details regarding the underlying issues. What we do learn is that Charlotte never felt like she had the love and security of a family unit; it also seems as though Charlotte never really confides in her best friend, Marte (Silje Storstein), either. No one seems to really know Charlotte; as her secrets get darker and more discomforting, it seems to be better that way.

Charlotte inherited her knack for secrecy from her mother, Anna (Anneke Von Der Lippe). Other than knowing that she has a brother who she has never met, Charlotte knows nothing of her mother’s previous marriage; but then her estranged half-brother, Henrik (Simon J. Berger), unexpectedly moves to Oslo with his wife and kid. With Henrik’s sudden appearance in her life, Charlotte finally sees an opportunity to form a connection with a blood relative.

Charlotte and Henrik’s connection grows far beyond platonic. Sure, Henrik is married and Charlotte is dating her best friend’s brother (Oddgeir Thune), but that does not stop them from “playing doctor” and so much more. Their sultry relationship is obviously destined for failure, but Charlotte and Henrik are much too engrossed in each other to care much about the risks. It is as if the two half-siblings are making up for lost time by overcompensating in their desire to establish an intense familiar connection; but other than ravaging each other like animals in heat, Charlotte and Henrik never really seem to connect on any other level. Their actions almost seem to be a rebellion against their mother for being too self-centered to love them. They end up discovering love in a very socially taboo place.

 
Like Charlotte, director Anne Sewitsky keeps us at arm’s length from Homesick‘s protagonists. The cold, distanced nature of the narrative provides it with an entrancing allure. Other than a few steamy sex scenes, the emotions are understated to mysteriously unrecognizable proportions. It is an intriguing approach to a taboo subject such as incest. Sewitsky has absolutely no interest in melodrama or expository dialogue, so she opts for an aloof nonchalance that seems to play off of the Scandinavian stereotype of quiet frigidity (it seems only appropriate that the story unfolds during the frosty Norwegian winter).

 

SUNDANCE 2015: (T)ERROR

A scene from (T)error. Photo credit: David Felix Sutcliffe.

Sought crimes

By Don Simpson

For the first hour of (T)ERROR, directors Lyric R Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe focus on an undercover FBI informant, Saeed (aka “Shariff”), who has granted them an “all access” pass to his final counterterrorism operation (unbeknownst to the FBI, of course). During the seven months that the filmmakers spend with Saeed in Pittsburg, his sole POI (person of interest) is Khalifah Al-Akili, a Caucasian American who converted to a militant Islam sect after being raised Protestant. The 63-year old informant does his best to ingratiate himself into Al-Akili’s world, all the while receiving vague directions from the FBI.
 
Saeed is an ex-Black Panther, ex-convict and practicing Muslim. He knows how to walk the walk and talk the talk of Muslim extremists, yet it is hard to determine how much of what he says is real. Cabral and Sutcliffe review Saeed’s life as an FBI informant and the cases he has worked in the past, most famously contributing to the conviction of jazz bassist Tarik Shah in Brooklyn. Despite his history, the more we get to know Saeed during this intriguing character study, the more unbelievable it seems that he is repeatedly cast by the FBI to play this role, but it is equally confounding how clumsy the operation appears to be. In the  final third of (T)ERROR, Cabral and Sutcliffe opt for a different angle.
 
Rather than spoiling the narrative twist, it is probably best to just say that it reveals their political motivations as filmmakers while also taking the film to a much higher level. Suddenly Cabral and Sutcliffe are able to talk about the FBI’s post-9/11 propensity for the entrapment of Muslims and the haphazard cases that they compile with the help of informants like Saeed. In the eyes of the directors, there have been several innocent Muslims who were incarcerated just because they were coaxed into saying something anti-American by a FBI informant. These Muslims did not actually do anything wrong, they just said the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

SUNDANCE 2015: THINGS OF THE AIMLESS WANDERER

News Correspondent (Justin Mulliken) in Things of the Aimless Wanderer.
A life in the bush of ghosts

By John Esther

It does not take long to realize Kivu Ruhorahoza's Things of the Aimless Wanderer is something special. Well, different at least.

Set in North Rwanda, Things of the Aimless Wanderer begins with somewhat of prologue where an Rwandan warrior (Ramadhan Bizimana) stalks a lonely white dude (Justin Mulliken) wandering the jungle. While wandering the jungle, whitey encounters a young, topless Rwandan woman (Grace Nikuze). There is a gaze off between the three characters.

Cut to early 21st century and "A girl has disappeared."

Told in three different yet related stories Ruhorahoza calls "a working hypothesis," the disappearance of the girl (or, rather, a young woman) offers up three scenarios involving sex, murder and shame. Using the same actors -- plus a narrator (Matt Ray Brown) who speaks for the white journalist -- the smaller stories are rather about bigger issues about the culture of Rwanda changing and expanding and how Rwandans are adapting to it (an allegory of sorts some may say). Except we are not getting a direct viewpoint from Rwandans but vis-a-vis what Ruhorahoza imagines what an American (or perhaps any white westerner) would see if he or she lived among the anxious Rwandans.

The issues are not so much related through dialogue -- there is very little of it, with the first of it coming during the 25th minute in this 77-minute film -- but rather through the Ruhorahoza's images and Daniel Biro's masterful score. In a Sundance Film Festival marked by outstanding scores, in particular Sam Shalabi's in The Amina Profile, Biro's wide, wild and wonderful music is like Brian Eno and The Orb (my Occidental ears!) got together with African Rwandan artists, smoked some cannabis and then got down to creative business.

SUNDANCE 2015: DREAMCATCHER

A scene from Dreamcather.
Turning the beat-en around

By Don Simpson

Under the alias “Breezy,” Brenda Myers-Powell worked as a prostitute for 25 years. An extremely violent encounter with a “John” landed Myers-Powell in a hospital in desperate need of facial reconstruction. That fateful moment was enough to convince Myers-Powell that she needed to change her life as well as the lives of others.

Kim Longinotto’s Dreamcatcher observes Myers-Powell as she attempts to fulfill her mission of ending human trafficking in Chicago. Her organization, the Dreamcatcher Foundation, helps abused, drug-addicted women regain control of their lives. Armed with an overwhelmingly positive and caring personality, Myers-Powell gives hope to these women who would otherwise be lost. Myers-Powell’s unwavering strength and self-confidence serves as an anchor for the women, convincing them that they can survive outside of the sex industry. Thanks to the Dreamcatcher Foundation, they learn that their lives are not completely hopeless; they have a chance to follow Myers-Powell’s example and turn things around.

Knowing that she needs to stop the problem at its source, Myers-Powell works to prevent the sexual exploitation of at-risk youths. Via this harm reduction approach, if the Dreamcatcher Foundation can provide young at-risk teens with the strength, confidence and security they need, the hope is that the inherent cycle of neglect and violence will be broken, and there will be a much better chance that they will not succumb to being enslaved by the sex industry. It often seems that their only options to make money are prostitution and drug dealing, but the Dreamcatcher Foundation seeks to provide them with other choices.

Longinotto’s insightful documentary serves an inspirational tool to convince others that the sex trafficking problem in at-risk communities might not be a lost cause. There is hope as long as this world has more positive motivators like Myers-Powell to lead the way; the problem is, Myers-Powell seems like such a uniquely paragon personality for this role. Myers-Powell encapsulates her role with such perfection that it seems impossible to imagine that anyone else could replicate her successful methods. One might even go as far as saying that Myers-Powell is a modern day saint.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

SUNDANCE 2015: CHUCK NORRIS VS. COMMUNISM


A scene from Chuck Norris vs. Communism.
 Lone Wolf Nistor

By Don Simpson
 
By the year 1985, Nicolae Ceausescu had been the dictator of Romania for 20 years. Ceausescu controlled all media and entertainment, reducing television access to one channel that only broadcasted for a couple hours per day. The masses could only endure so much oppression, so a secret underground movement was established to illegally import and distribute bootlegged VHS recordings of movies from the Western world. Amazingly enough, a majority of the bootlegs were overdubbed with the voice of one person, Irina Nistor; she was the person everyone associated with the bootleg VHS tapes and became a mysterious savior to the Romanian public.
 
Combining talking head interviews with reenactment footage, first-time director Ilinca Calugareanu reveals the inner workings of an elaborate VHS smuggling ring that arguably might have prompted the eventual overthrow of Calugareanu’s tyranny in 1989. Oddly enough, there were plenty of Romanian officials and members of the secret police who helped out the VHS bootleggers (in exchange for free bootlegs, of course). In other words, Calugareanu’s government may have contributed to its own demise.
 
Through th title, Chuck Norris vs Communism, suggests that Chuck Norris was Romania’s savior, it was an entire catalog of films, mostly from Hollywood, spanning the gauntlet from action films to romantic comedies. These films taught Romanians about the many wonders of the Western world — specifically 1980s pop culture, free enterprise and materialism, but the films also served as an escape from the grim reality of their daily existence. While we can certainly debate the educational merit and the sociopolitical messages that most of these films communicated, it is quite invigorating to think that cinema might have been the root cause of a working class uprising.