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May 5/10

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MOVIES
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Watch for lots of great NEW REVIEWS here the week of May 24!

The date at the top of the page is the date on which the page was started. Newer reviews, as added, will appear towards the top of the page, while the older reviews will move further down.

Reviewed here: The Secret in Their Eyes (Movie); The Steam of Life (Documentary); This Way of Life (Documentary); I Shot My Love (Documentary); Secrets of the Tribe (Documentary); Bad Business (Mystery)

The Secret in Their Eyes (Movie) written by Juan Jos Campanella; based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri; directed by Juan Jos Campanella; starring Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, Guillermo Francella, Rudy Romano, Alejandro Abelenda

It’s hard to say much about the plot of this Academy Award winner (Best Foreign Language Film) without giving away more details than we like to. Let’s just say it’s about the murder of a young wife in Buenos Aires in the 1970s. The killer gets nailed about half way into the movie, largely through some far-fetched guesses and implausible luck. But never mind. It’s what happens after that matters. A main factor in subsequent developments is a detective’s bonding with the bereaved widower (Pablo Rago) over the question of what would constitute suitable retribution for the horrible crime. Meanwhile, the detective is carrying on a flirtation with the very attractive woman who is his boss and who is younger than he, but who is engaged to somebody else. All this is seen in retrospect twenty years later as the detective, now retired, is trying to write a novel about the case.

From the publicity featuring the solemn pictures of Ricardo Darin in the role of detective Benjamin Esposito – all swarthy and hang-dog – you’d think this was going to be the epitome of the existential, noir-ish murder mystery. It does have some of that quality. What you don’t expect is that it’s going to be so funny. The goings-on among these investigators make Starsky and Hutch look like models of decorum and propriety. Benjamin’s sidekick, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), is a hopeless drunk whose loyalty Benjamin ensures by paying Pablo’s bills and bailing him out of trouble. One of those rare drunks who’s always perfectly neat and presentable, Pablo likes to answer the office phone with annoucements like: "This is the Sperm Bank. We make loans." When he and Benjamin are discovered to have undertaken some highly illicit sleuthing, their presiding judge reams them out with inventive profanity in a bravura tirade comparable to the one unleashed by the dad character in An Education. (See the review of that film on Dilettante’s Diary page dated Nov 11/09.)

The Secret in Their Eyes is shot in lush, saturated colours that suggest snapshots of the 1970s. One amazing tracking shot picks out a lighted soccer stadium in a dark nighttime landscape, zooms into the playing field, then up into the crowded stands, to find our two detectives jostling with the rabid fans. I also like the adroit editing whereby a scene ends before you hear the conclusion of a discussion; you infer it from the next scene. The ageing of the actors, as required by the two time periods, doesn’t work perfectly – too much reliance on latex wrinkles for my taste – but the characters all come across as superbly real and believable.

One of the most interesting of them being Benjamin's boss, the magnificent Irene Menndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). When Benjamin’s having trouble breaking down a suspect, Irene turns out to have a remarkable way of getting the job done. I’m willing to overlook the hokey psychology involved because the process is so entertaining. With regard to the relationship between Benjamin and Irene, the movie takes on a certain fillip because we’re never quite sure whether we’re seeing what actually happened or Benjamin’s novelized version. It's one of those relationships where both parties pretend to be flippant and tongue-in-cheek, while we suspect there's a lot more going on. Especially when the concept of the full life -- as opposed to a meaningless one -- comes up in their discussions.

That concept also figures largely in the mystery’s ultimate resolution, one that strikes me as uniquely creepy and utterly original in terms of crime fiction. What’s especially pleasing is that there’s a kind of inevitable logic to it. You feel you should have seen it coming.

Rating: B (i.e. "Better than most")

 

HOT DOCS (Film Festival), Toronto, until May 9

Toronto hosts too damned many festivals of one kind and another. I guess they're meant for people who don’t have enough to do. That’s not an issue in this department. However, one shouldn’t remain entirely aloof from the entertainments of the masses. So I decided to sample a few of the Hot Docs this year.

Being in no way cool or with-it, I happened to chose films that none of the critics in the mainstream media are making a fuss about. The pay-off for readers of Dilettante’s Diary is that you get to hear about some films that you won’t hear about elsewhere.

 

Steam of Life (Documentary) by Joonas Berghll and Mika Hotakainen; Finland

Groups of Finnish men sit around in saunas, sweating and talking. Why should we want to hear what they have to say? Because Finnish men are usually so taciturn. At least, that’s the claim of the two directors of the film, who spoke at this showing, its international premiere. The idea, then, is that we’re seeing Finnish men in rare moments of unguarded self-revelation.

So we get saunas in the city and the country: some high-tech, some as humble as tents or trailers. One looks like an abandoned telephone booth. Much of the talk, lubricated with beer in many cases, reviews sad experiences with wives and children. Custody issues arise more than once. A solider talks about coming back from Afghanistan to bury his mother. A couple of homeless guys in a city sauna discuss where to spend the night.

In one of my favourite scenes, a guy tells about his past life of crime and alcohol addiction. While serving time in solitary confinement, he watched a blue butterfly land on his coffee cup. That struck him as so beautiful that he decided to turn his life around. As he tells this story, his three little boys are playing in the field outside the sauna. Then they join him inside. "I used to have nothing but empty pockets," he says, "Now I have empty pockets and a family."

Unquestionably, though, the hardest-hitting episode is the one in which a forty-ish father spills his profound grief about a family tragedy. If you had a top-notch script writer and a superb actor, you could not create a scene more searing than this spontaneous monologue by an ordinary man.

The film has been put together with great artistry. Keeping a slow, contemplative pace, it features gorgeous photography: still-life shots of things like hot rocks, buckets of water, wooden slats; and expansive landscapes much like Northern Canada. The only discernible structure would be the passage of seasons through the year, from one winter to another. For some reason that I don’t fully understand but that seems to have its own aesthetic logic, the film ends with a stirring montage of the various men singing a haunting folk song.

Beautiful as it is in many ways, the film didn’t strike me as perfect. For one thing, it’s somewhat repetitious. Once guys start to spill their guts, the emotional impact of the stories doesn’t vary much, just the details. Another thing that bothers me is what might be called the contextual issue. If the premise is that people are revealing their souls in complete cadour, then what are we to make of the presence of the cameras? Are we supposed to play along with the subjects in pretending to forget that the cameras are there? Maybe this isn’t a problem for viewers today who are used to reality shows on tv. (I’ve never seen one.) It could be that those programs have habituated viewers to the idea that ordinary life can transpire without any alteration in front of a camera. Maybe people no longer notice the inherent oxymoron in the concept of candour for the camera.

On the other hand, many of these guys don’t seem to have any trouble exhibiting full frontal nudity for the cameras. So maybe they’re not so shy after all? Maybe they’re totally fine with letting it all hang out – emotionally and physically.

Rating: C + (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

This Way of Life (Documentary) by Thomas Burstyn, New Zealand

Who hasn’t entertained this fantasy?

You tell society to shove it, you take off for the hinterlands with your partner, you find an idyllic spot where you learn to live by your wits and your brawn, and you start producing children who will romp the open spaces with gleeful abandon when they aren’t gathering at your knee for marathon sessions of mutual love and affection.

That’s more or less the fantasy that the Maori couple, Peter and Colleen Karena, have realized for themselves at a remote spot somewhere on the North Island of New Zealand. Peter, a guy in his mid-to-late thirties, talks about trying to find a way to make a living that doesn’t impugn his integrity. For a while, it’s not clear how he does that. (Because of the thick accents and the jumpy structure of the movie, it can take quite a while to make sense of the various scenarios.) Eventually, we learn that he raises horses in the wild, then trains them just enough to sell them as work horses.

The couple’s kids join with their parents in just about everything. At the opening of the movie, there are five young-uns (three girls and two boys) but, during the course of it, Colleen gives birth to another girl. By the end of the movie, the oldest kid is eleven. The older kids are proficient at skills like bare-back horse-riding and standing on a horses’s back to pluck fruit from a tree. When chores aren’t too pressing, Peter joins the kids in carefree skinny-dipping at a scenic swimming hole. Not much is said about their schooling, but they’re bright and well-informed. So Colleen and Peter seem to be providing everything that society expects kids to receive in more conventional ways.

But the movie turns out to be about much more than thumbing your nose at society. It’s about the most fundamental decisions people make about the way they want to live. By extension, it makes you think about how all of us make choices that create meaning for ourselves in our own lives.

Because the movie focuses mostly on Peter, though, it becomes a study of one remarkable man. You’d have to look long and hard – in real life or fiction – to find a guy who shows such a remarkable combination of rugged strength and tender sensitivity. He hunts for food (deer, wild pig) but he teaches his kids to respect the animals whose lives have been sacrificed so that the family can eat. To see him rounding up wild horses with his whip, or lassoing one that’s running away, makes you gasp at the guy’s prowess. In the next minute, though, he’ll have you melting as he rescues a baby rabbit from a burrow where it's been cornered by the family’s dog. Pocketing the quivering bunny, Peter tells it, "The kids are gonna love you!"

Over the time that the documentary was being filmed, the family suffered several setbacks. (In keeping with the policy of Dilettante’s Diary regarding plot, we won’t reveal any details.) Ultimately, the main point of the movie is how Peter and his wife deal with misfortune. When the family survives one disaster, Colleen remarks: "My children are all fine. We have our health. That’s what matters."* Clearly, religion is some help to them. Colleen mentions that she prays about problems. And one scene shows the family getting dressed up for church on Sunday. But it’s not stated what sort of church is involved. The emphasis is more on character. When Peter seems nearly overwhelmed by the malice of others, we catch him stopping and asking himself, almost whimsically: "What is the lesson to be learned? Am I supposed to be meek? Is that what I’m supposed to be?"

We don’t get much sense of Peter’s education, apart from the considerable skills he has acquired for living on the land. While he may not be the most sophisticated guy around, he’s intelligent and well-spoken. If he hasn’t had any formal post-secondary education, he must have been doing some good reading. When it comes to parenting, Peter's troubled history with his stepfather leads him to say that his only guideline is to try to raise kids the way he would like to have been raised.

The guy makes such a good impression that you have to start trying to spot his flaws. Surely, somebody like this would  be a bit redneck, not very tolerant of other’s opinions? But no, that rap won't stick, because Peter turns out to be open-minded. When reflecting on his own moral sense, for instance, he expresses the hope that his oldest son will have the same values. But Peter concedes that the kid might turn out to see life differently from the way his dad does. That will be ok with him, Peter says, as long as the kid is happy.

For me, this documentary offers more drama, character development and thought-provoking stuff than you’d find in many a fictional film. In my opinion, then, it’s documentary-making at one of the highest levels of the art. Unlike The Steam of Life (see review above), it doesn’t raise questions about candour. In this case, the subjects acknowledge the camera. There’s no pretense, no subterfuge. In fact, one of the key elements of the movie has Peter, perched in the crotch of a tree, speaking directly to us. Musing on some of the bad things that have happened to the family lately, he marvels at the fact that the new baby’s arrival in the midst of it all cheered him up considerably. He chokes up at that thought. Then he asks: "How can people say there isn’t a God?"

Rating: B+ (Where B = "Better than most")

*Not exact quotes. As you know, I don’t carry a tape recorder.

 

I Shot My Love (Documentary) by Tomer Heymann; Israel, Germany

This one holds out the promise of intriguing drama: an Israeli man falls in love with a German guy who may or may not have Nazi connections in his family background.

Film-maker Tomer Heymann, while attending the Berlin film festival, met Andreas Merk, a German dancer. Tomer, being inseparable from his camera, started filming his affair with Andreas. The two set up housekeeping in Tel Aviv. While Andreas adapted to life in Israel, the camera watched to see how Tomer’s mother was accepting the newcomer. Meanwhile, she had a subplot of her own by way of a hip operation.

Filmed with hand-held camera and lots of blurry shots, it all has a somewhat home-movie feel: here, let me show you my photos of my marvellous boyfriend! And the voice-over narration from Tomer has a plodding, pedestrian feel. But there's something to like here, in the way of cinema-verit. The expected drama doesn’t materialize, though. Turns out Andreas doesn’t know whether or not there were Nazi connections among his relatives; he has never asked, because he doesn’t want to know. As for Tomer’s mother’s crisis, let’s face it, a hip operation isn’t such a big deal (except for the patient and the immediate family). Hardly the sort of thing that merits international film-festival attention.

When Andreas joins the Passover celebrations with Tomer’s family, however, it begins to feel as though the movie has something to say. One of Tomer’s elderly relatives has provided a German translation of the texts so that Andreas can take his turn reading aloud. Given that the elderly relative looks like somebody who could well have experienced something of the Second World War, you’d have to say something pretty significant is going on here. In case you think everything’s turning out all sweetness-and-light, though, Tomer’s mother later challenges him about the appropriateness of his relationship with Andreas. Then a Christmas celebration with Andreas’ family, filmed by Tomer, adds another spin to the theme.

But the soul-searching by Andreas as he stares into the camera can’t help having a somewhat narcissistic feeling. Part of the problem is that, because Tomer’s behind the camera, it never feels like a dilalogue, even though we hear him asking questions. Andreas is attractive in a winsome way, but this one-sided view of the relationship isn’t all that engaging.

Tomer’s mother is. From clips of old movies, we can see that she has turned from a typically demure-looking housewife in prim dresses, to a hefty free spirit with a butch-style haircut. Divorced after thirty-three years of marriage, she has a wry, crusty view of life. In the question period after the showing of the film, Mr. Heymann (who came across as charming and witty) said his remarkable mom gave him permission to use her image any way he liked in the film. But she begged him to include a shot that would show that she had recently lost 25 kilos. (He didn’t, but he said you can admire her new look at the film’s website www.ishotmylove.com  Sounds to me like a film about that woman’s journey might have lots to offer about how a person negotiates a life in this world.

Rating: D+ (Where D = Divided, i.e. "Some good, some bad")

 

Secrets of the Tribe (Documentary) by Jos Padilha, UK and Brazil

This film discusses the work of anthropologists among the Yanomami, an isolated tribe in the Amazon basin, on the border between Brazil and Venezuela. But don’t think you’re going to learn much about them, except incidentally. The movie’s more about the in-fighting among anthropologists. Much of it swirls around Napoleon Chagnon, the author who first brought the Yanomami to the attention of the wider world. As the guns start blazing, you begin to realize that the"Tribe" does not refer to the Yanomami so much as to the anthropologists, and that their dirty "Secret" is that some of them hate each other.

Here, reduced to lay person’s terms, are some of the contentiuos issues, in so far as I can understand and remember them:

- whether the Yanomami fight wars over women or over protein sources;

- the ramifications, for an understanding of human nature, of Professor Chagnon’s claim that the Yanomami men who do the most killing acquire the most wives and produce the most children;

- whether an anthropologist named Kenneth Good committed a moral outrage by taking as his wife a Yanomami barely thirteen-years-old;

- why nothing was done by the authorities when it was reported that French anthropologist Jacques Lizot was systematically and habitually subjecting Yanomami boys to sexual abuse;

- the implications of the fact that Professor Chagnon’s work turned out to be intended for purposes of genetic research in connection with US studies of the effects of exposure to nuclear radiation;

- whether Professor Chagnon’s response to a measles outbreak among the Yanomami was driven by humanitarian motives or by cold-blooded scientific investigation;

- whether Professor Chagnon might have carelessly exposed to measles some Yanomami groups that had not yet been exposed, or whether he did all he could to prevent such a spread of the disease.

Much of the controversy turns around a book, published in 2001 by Patrick Tierney, excoriating Professor Chagnon and other anthropologists for their treatment of the Yanomami. Apart from some visual relief in the way of archival footage of daily life among the Yanomami, we get yak-yak-yak, back and forth, from talking heads.

But to what point? Maybe the purpose is to show us that nobody really knows who’s right and who’s wrong. But what help is that to anybody? Sometimes clips from opposing experts are juxtaposed in a way apparently meant to get a laugh. Why? To make the anthropologists look ridiculous?  On the other hand, the movie seems to be making a plea for our indulgence towards the benighted researchers. As somebody says well into the film: "Anthropologists are human." Do we need ninety minutes of film to prove that?

Rating: D ( for Divided: i..e "Some good, some bad")

 

                                     *****

Bad Business (Mystery) by Robert B. Parker, 2004

My reading of this book served the purpose of something like a memorial nod to author Robert B. Parker, who died a few months ago. The manner of his death struck many as having something in common with his writing style. A man who spent every morning at his work, then enjoyed life for the rest of the day, he was found dead at his typewriter by his wife when she came back from errands one morning. No fuss. No dragging out of the process. Just getting the job done neatly and expeditiously.

That’s the thing that most pleases me about his writing. His crisp, efficient style keeps you speeding along through the short chapters. You’re always hurrying to cram in a couple more long after you feel you should have gone to bed -- even when, as in this "Spenser" novel, the story isn’t particularly amazing.

It starts with a self-centred rich woman asking Spenser to investigate her husband. She thinks he's cheating on her. That gets Spenser involved in the company where the hubby is a big shot executive. Company personnel start turning up dead. Trust Spenser to figure out what’s going on. In the process, he uncovers some financial chicanery that’s difficult for a reader like me to follow. The complicated network of spouse-swapping is even more baffling.

By the time of this book’s publication, Mr. Parker had written 30 Spenser novels, along with some 17 other books. (For reviews of some of them see Dilettante's Diary pages: Summer Mysteries '07; March 26/08; and May 18/08.) Hardly surprising, then, that this one looks a bit thin compared to some of his others. Few of the characters other than Spenser take on dimensionality beyond that of caricature. By the time he admits that he’s getting tired of the woman who hired him, I’m like: "You lasted a lot longer with her than I did, buddy!" One character comes across as nothing but a fatuous version of a stage Irishman. The shtick perpetrated by Spenser’s old pal Hawk has gone stale. The guy will not stop with the hokey street talk; yet he’s supposed to be an expert on things like the music of J.S. Bach and the fine points of the French language.

The portrayal of Spenser’s relationship with Susan Silverman, his psychiatrist girlfriend, a mainstay of most of the books, falters too. Spenser's constantly reminding us of her tremendous beauty and intelligence makes you wonder what he’s trying to prove. And why does he keep insisting on their monogamous fidelity, as contrasted with the carry-on among the bad people? Spenser’s sexual banter with Ms. Silverman now sounds contrived and corny. As in other books, though, she provides some ideas worth mulling over: for instance, the confusion between charm and power, as exerted by a chief executive.

Even some of Spenser’s traits that used to make him likable start to pall. In previous books, he had a pleasant but subtle way of reminding us of his heterosexuality. Now, he makes the point far too often that he enjoys polishing his "surveillance skills" by watching young women from his office window.

Still, he remains one of the most enjoyable detective narrators in crime fiction. Mostly, thanks to his self-deprecating humour. After describing a male character’s natty appearance, Spenser says: "My clothes must never fit that well, I thought. I’d be overwhelmed with sexual opportunities, and never get any work done." About a woman who keeps inserting sexual innuendo into conversations with him, he says: "She would have been making me uncomfortable if I weren’t so sophisticated." At one point, he has rattled off a summary of some complicated financial affairs that he has barely understood. Noting how convincing he has sounded, Spenser comments, "It made me proud to be me."

Rightly so. Not only is he a character who deserves to enjoy that self-esteem; he’s one that any author can be proud to have created, even if all his outings don’t quite measure up to the highest standards of crime fiction.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com