Category Archives: Culture Clash

Broken wing: Birds of Passage (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 9, 2019)

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There have been myriad articles, books, series, documentaries and films recounting the tumultuous history of the Colombian drug trade, but nothing I have previously read or seen on the subject prepared me for Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage.

Spanning 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the film (based on true events) is equal parts crime family saga and National Geographic special; The Godfather meets The Emerald Forest. On paper, this may seem like a familiar “rise and fall of a drug lord” story- but the filmmakers tell it through the unique cultural lens of Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu tribe.

The Wayuu people have dwelt in the desolate La Guajira Desert (which overlaps Colombia and Venezuela) for nearly 2,000 years. They have managed to keep many of their cultural traditions remarkably intact…considering. In other words, I’m not saying that they haven’t gotten their hair mussed once or twice throughout the millennia; from 18th-Century invasions and persecution by the Spanish, to a veritable laundry list of discriminatory and exclusionary edicts by the Colombian and Venezuelan governments.

Considering all the limitations historically placed on them (which includes having little control over and restricted access to raw materials on their own land) it is not surprising that the Wayuu have relied heavily on farming and trading as the chief means of survival.

Birds of Passage begins in 1960, right around the time the Wayuu discovered there was some easily cultivated local flora becoming quite popular with the alijunas (their word for “foreigners”) and ripe for commodification. From a 2018 Global Americas article:

It was the 1960’s in La Guajira, the northernmost tip of Colombia and Venezuela, and the indigenous Wayuu were used to trading as a way of life.  It has long been part of their survival in this harsh desert environment.

They were first courted by the new Peace Corps volunteers that President Kennedy had set up to fight communism in the region.  As they spread pamphlets and advised the indigenous people to “say no to communism,” they also asked to buy marijuana. Soon, the young Americans introduced the Wayuu to their North American connections, who opened up small drug runs in propeller planes between Colombia and the United States.  At the time, marijuana was a controlled but legal substance in the United States. However, the Wayuu quickly discovered that it was much more profitable than coffee, whiskey and the other commodities they usually traded to eke out a living in this remote area.

The film’s opening passage is an intoxicating immersion in Wayuu culture; a beautiful young woman named Zaida (Natalia Reyes) has “come of age” and is commanded by her rather stern mother Ursula (Carmina Martinez) to don a resplendent red outfit and perform what appears to be a “mating dance” at a village gathering (the first of the film’s numerous avian metaphors). Several eligible suitors cut in to display their wares; ultimately one is left standing. His name is Rapayet (Jose Acosta) and vows to marry her.

However, there is the matter of a dowry (cows, goats, a few other sundries) that Rapayet is required to deliver within a specified time. Like most Wayuu, he’s a little short that week and needs to scare up some coin pronto if he wants to win his bride.

He turns to his best friend Moises (Jhon Narvaez) a non-tribal Colombian and free-spirited hustler who tells Rapayet he knows some American Peace Corps volunteers who happen to be in the market for some fine Colombian. This relatively benign, small-time dope deal plants the seeds (so to speak) for what eventually evolves into a Wayuu drug empire, with Rapayet at the helm.

As inevitably ensues in such tales, it is greed, corruption and avarice that sends the protagonist hurtling toward self-destruction, but Maria Camila Arias’ screenplay sidesteps usual clichés by introducing the complexities of cultural identity into the mix. What results is a parable that’s at once overly familiar, yet somehow…wholly unfamiliar.

Blu-ray reissue: Dead Man (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2018)

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Rhymes with: “deadpan”. Then again, that could describe any film directed by the idiosyncratic Jim Jarmusch. As far as Kafkaesque westerns go, you could do worse than this 1995 offering.

Johnny Depp plays mild-mannered accountant and city slicker William Blake (yes, I know) who travels West by train to the rustic town of Machine, where he has accepted a job. Or so he assumes. Getting shooed out of his would-be employer’s office at gunpoint (a great cameo by Robert Mitchum) turns out to be the least of his problems, which rapidly escalate. Soon, he’s a reluctant fugitive on the lam. Once he crosses paths with a semi-mystical Native American named Nobody (the wonderful Gary Farmer), his journey takes on a mythic ethos. Surreal, darkly funny, and poetic.

Criterion’s 4K digital restoration shows a marked improvement over a previously released Blu-ray from Lion’s Gate (showcasing the late Robby Mueller’s stunning B&W photography ). Extras include footage of Neil Young working on the soundtrack, a new interview with Farmer, and an entertaining Q & A produced exclusively for Criterion, with Jarmusch responding to inquires sent in by fans.

SIFF 2018: The African Storm **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018

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Writer-director-producer-star Sylvestre Amoussou’s political satire (a cross between The Mouse That Roared and O Lucky Man!) is set in the imaginary African republic of Tangara. There are no Marvel superheroes in sight, but there is the nation’s forward-thinking President (Amoussou), who issues a bold decree: he is nationalizing all of his country’s traditionally Western-controlled businesses and lucrative diamond-mining operations. Naturally, the various multinational corporations concerned immediately bring in their “fixers”, who employ every dirty trick in the playbook to sow political upheaval, public discord, and outright violence throughout the tiny nation. Undeterred, the President continues to rally, even daring to denounce (gulp) the IMF and The World Bank. Can he pull this off? I really wanted to love this plucky anti-colonial parable, but…it’s overly simplistic, to the point of cringe-worthy audience pandering.

Setsuko doesn’t live here anymore: Oh Lucy! (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 17, 2018)

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Writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s dramedy Oh Lucy! (which earned her a “Best First Feature” nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards) is a bit like Lost in Translation; lonely hearts, urban isolation and linguistic confusion…all bathed in Tokyo’s neon lights.

Shinobu Terajima is Setsuko, a single, middle-aged office drone in Tokyo. She trudges through indistinguishable days with dour expression and existential malaise; barely noticing when somebody deliberately jumps in front of an oncoming train at her station.

Her young and vivacious niece Mika (Shirori Kutsuna) feels Aunt Setsuko needs to get out and mingle more, so one day she hands her a flyer with the address for an ESL class that she’s been attending, taught by an American named John (Josh Hartnett). Reluctantly, Setsuko acquiesces and gives it a go. John’s teaching methods are unconventional; in addition to doling out uncomfortably long hugs, he picks out a wig and Anglicized name for each student. Setsuko (he decides) is now a blonde named Lucy.

In spite of herself, Setsuko begins to enjoy the class; she may even be developing a little crush on John. However, much to her dismay, John unceremoniously quits his job; it seems he has fallen hard for a young Japanese woman, and has spirited her back to Los Angeles. Setsuko quickly discovers that the young woman is Mika. And so she and Mika’s concerned mother, her sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) hop on a plane to California.

What next ensues can be labeled equal parts road movie, “fish out of water” story, social satire, and family melodrama. Granted, it’s a stylistic miss-mash, vacillating between light comedy and dark character study, but director Hirayanagi manages to juggle it all with a deft hand. She also works in subtle observations on the evergreen “ugly American” meme. Fine performances abound, but the glue holding it all together is Terajima, who gives a wonderfully nuanced and layered performance as Setsuko/“Lucy”.

SIFF 2017: God of War ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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Hong Kong action maestro Gordon Chan’s war epic stars Sammo Hung as a general with an under-trained “people’s army” desperately trying to get the upper hand on a sizable coterie of seasoned Japanese pirates who have been wreaking havoc up and down the coast. Chan has his Japanese cast members speak in-language; it’s unique for a Chinese film, and enhances the verisimilitude. Sections of the story line get murky and confusing, but colorful, rousing (and frequent) battle scenes make up for occasional lulls.

SIFF 2017: Angry Inuk ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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Canadian film maker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril hails from an Inuk community near Baffin Island, where locals rely on traditional subsistence seal hunting; not only to literally put food on the table, but to earn a living from commercial sales of sealskin products. In 2009, the European Union banned commercial trade in all seal products except for those from Indigenous hunts. While that seems a reasonable concession, the director and her fellow Inuk activists feel that the legislators and animal rights groups miss the fact that the ban has all but killed the market for the products-thus putting the Inuk people in dire economic straits. Aranquq-Baril’s documentary is wise, witty and thought-provoking, offering up a unique perspective on this controversial issue.

SJFF 2017: Germans and Jews ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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Can’t we all just get along? If you’re talking Jews and Germans, even in the context of here and now in a modern, (very) democratic Germany…it’s complicated. This documentary was the brainchild of NYC-based (non-Jewish) director Janina Quint, who grew up in Germany, and her friend, producer Tal Recanati, who was born in the US, but spent some formative years in Israel. The result is a fascinating study about collective guilt, forgiveness, sins of the fathers and sociopolitical backlash. Don’t expect pat answers; on one hand, it’s been over 70 years since WW2 ended…on the other hand, it’s only been 70-some years since WW2 ended (if you know what I’m saying). And yes, there are discomfiting moments, but this film is timely and thought-provoking.

(For more information, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

Put some shorts on

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo o February 18, 2017

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At the risk of having my critic’s license revoked, I will freely admit this, right here in front of (your deity of choice) and all six of my readers: I have not seen any of the 9 films nominated for Best Picture of 2016. Then again, you can feel free to ask me if I care (the Academy and I rarely see eye-to-eye). Funny thing, though…I have managed to catch all of the (traditionally more elusive) Oscar nominees for Best Short Film-Animation and Best Short Film-Live Action. And the good news is you can, too. The five nominees in each sub-category are making the rounds as limited-engagement curated presentations; each collection runs the length of a feature film, with separate admissions (the films are held over this week in Seattle and will be on various streaming platforms February 21).

(Reads woodenly off teleprompter) And the nominees for Best Short Film-Animation are:

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Blind Vaysha (Canada; 8 mins) – Directed by Theodore Ushev, this piece (based on the eponymous short story by Georgi Gospodinov) is a parable about a girl born with uniquely dichotomous vision: one eye sees the past, the other the future. Is it a metaphor about living in the moment? Oh, maybe. Simple, direct, and affecting, with a woodcut-style “look” that reminded me of Tomm Moore’s animated films (The Secret of Kells).

Rating: ***

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Borrowed Time (USA; 7 mins) – Set in the old west, this portrait of remembrance and regret is visually impressive, and seems well-intentioned…but it’s curiously uninvolving. It’s co-directed by veteran Pixar Studios animators Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj.

Rating: **

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Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Canada/UK; 35 mins) – Director Robert Valley’s resume includes a graphic novel series; and his film definitely has that dark vibe. It’s a noir-ish memoir concerning the narrator’s longtime love/hate relationship with his best buddy, “Techno Stypes”, a charismatic but maddeningly self-destructive Neal Cassady-type figure. The story is involving at the outset, but becomes somewhat redundant and ultimately, tiring. Atmospheric, and great to look at-but even at 35 minutes, it’s overlong. Note: Parents should be advised that this one (not exactly “family-friendly”) is being exhibited last, allowing time for attendees to opt out (“hey kids-who wants ice cream?!”).

Rating: **½

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Pearl (USA; 6 mins) – A young girl and her free-spirited musician father have a care-free, nomadic existence living out of their car, but as the years pass, life’s bumpy road creates challenging detours (Jesus, did I just write that? A gig with Hallmark beckons). Quite lovely and very moving; it’s my favorite of the nominees in this category. It’s almost like a 6 minute distillation of Richard Linklater’s interminable Boyhood (wish I’d discovered this first-would have saved me some time). Well-directed by Patrick Osborne.

Rating: ***½

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Piper (USA; 6 mins) – I’ve resigned myself to the fact that a Pixar nomination in this category is as unavoidable as Taylor Swift at the Grammys. Actually (long-time readers will back me up on this) I have softened on my curmudgeonly stance on CGI animation, enough to cave on this animal-lover’s delight. Not much of a narrative, but somehow “the story of a hungry sandpiper hatchling who ventures from her nest for the first time to dig for food by the shoreline (the end)” is a perfect salve for what’s, you know…going on the world right now. In fact, I might need to watch this on a loop, just to keep from hurtling myself off the nearest cliff. Beautifully directed by Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer.

Rating: ***

And the nominees for Best Short Film-Live Action are:

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Ennemis Interieurs (France; 28 mins) – Set in 1990s France, an Algerian-born French citizen is given the third-degree at a police station regarding his association with members of his mosque who are suspected terrorists. The political subtext in Sleim Aszzazi’s film recalls The Battle of Algiers; with a touch of The Confession. While I appreciate what the director is trying to convey in his examination of Islamophobia, the film doesn’t go anywhere; it’s too dramatically flat to stand out in any significant way.

Rating: **½

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La Femme et le TGV (Switzerland; 30 mins) – Inspired by a true story, Timo von Gentun’s film stars 60s icon Jane Birken (mother of Charlotte Gainesbourg) as a lonely widow living a quiet, structured life. “Quiet” with one exception-which is when a daily express train thunders past her cottage. Smiling and waving at the train is the highlight of her day. After she stumbles on a letter that the train’s conductor chucked into her garden, a unique relationship begins (a la 84 Charing Cross Road). OK, it is borderline schmaltzy at times-but also touching and bittersweet, with an endearing performance from Birken.

Rating: ****

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Silent Nights (Denmark; 30 mins) – A young Danish woman who works as a volunteer at a homeless shelter and an illegal immigrant from Ghana cross paths at the facility and develop a mutual attraction. Director Aske Bang uses the ensuing romantic relationship as political allegory; examining difficulties of cultural assimilation and the overall plight of immigrants in Western countries (much as Fassbinder did in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul).

Rating: ***

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Sing (Hungary; 25 mins) – It’s interesting that two of the five nominated films in this category are set in the 90s, and specifically in allusion to the political turmoil in Europe that was proliferating at the time (it’s either “interesting”, or perhaps I’m merely slow in catching on that “the 90s” was a generation ago, ergo “history”…funny how one loses sense of time as one ages, isn’t it?). At any rate, Kristof Deak’s tale centers on a young girl just starting out at a new school. She joins the choir, a perennially award-winning group with a dictatorial choir director. When she finds out that the “secret” to the choir’s continuing success is not above board, she is faced with a moral conundrum. Although based on a true story, it plays like a modern parable about the courage of whistleblowers.

Rating: ***½

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Timecode (Spain; 15 mins) – As directed by Juanjo Gimenez Pena, this hipster catnip about two mopey millennial security guards (one male, one female) who barely exchange a word during their daily shift change is a glorified YouTube video that uses up its irony quotient quickly. I might have thrown it an extra star if it was but ten minutes shorter.

Rating: *

Blu-ray reissue: The Man Who Fell to Earth ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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The Man Who Fell to Earth: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition                  Studio Canal Region “B” Blu-ray*

 If there was ever a film and a star that were made for each other, it was director Nicolas Roeg’s mind-blowing 1976 adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the late great David Bowie.

Several years after retiring his “Ziggy Stardust” persona, Bowie was coaxed back to the outer limits of the galaxy to play Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from a drought-stricken planet who crash-lands on Earth. Gleaning Earth as a water source, Newton formulates a long-range plan for transporting the precious resource back to his home world. In the interim, he becomes an enigmatic hi-tech magnate (makes you wonder where Bill Gates really came from).

A one-of-a-kind film, with excellent supporting performances from Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Buck Henry. The Studio Canal Edition has a gorgeous new 4K transfer, a second disc packed with extras, and a bonus CD of “Papa” John Phillips’ soundtrack.  Lionsgate will be releasing the domestic version of this set in January 2017.

*Note: Region “B” requires a region-free player (they’re getting cheaper!).

SIFF 2016: Mekko ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, neorealist character study takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding as the eponymous character, a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years of hard time. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from his entire cast. There’s a lot more going on here than initially meets the eye; namely, a deeper examination of Native American identity, assimilation and spirituality in the modern world.