Wednesday, February 23, 2011

It Doesn't End When the Shaking Stops

     This week's earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, reminded me that the tragedy doesn't often end for the victims after the debris is removed and the city rebuilt. A few weeks ago I attended a lecture by a psychiatrist who has been making frequent trips to Haiti for the purpose of training Haitians to counsel victims of last year's devastating earthquake.
     The importance of that work hit home when I saw the Chinese film, Aftershock, at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January.  Director Feng Xiaogang has created a stunning epic that chronicles the emotional journey of a single family following the devastating earthquake that destroyed the city of Tangshan in 1976 and killed 240,000 of its citizens.  The heartrending tale follows the survivors over the next 32 years as they suffer the emotional effects of the tragedy.  Like the aftershocks following a major quake, the trauma of the event continues to reverberate throughout their lives and the lives of those who come to love them later in life.
     Aftershock was the highest grossing domestic film in China in 2010.  It is the first Chinese feature to be filmed in IMAX, and ironically that may keep it from building the audience it deserves.  Although the dramatic earthquake effects that open the film are a new achievement in China, they are not enough to attract international film goers jaded by the multi-million dollar special effects extravaganzas produced by Hollywood every year.  The current international IMAX tour will probably fail to draw large audiences, which is a tragedy of its own.  What makes this film special is not the technical effects but the story itself, and that story was compelling enough to warrant four separate IMAX-free screenings in the largest venues of the Palm Springs festival this year. 

     This is a film you should see.  Chances are you won't find it at a theater near you, so do the next best thing and reserve it on Netflix.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Faces of the Modern Warrior

    It comforts us to believe that our all-volunteer military is populated by young men and women who choose willingly to march into the valley of death to preserve our American values and way of life, but as in most human endeavors, the truth is far more complicated than that, and perhaps uncomfortably revealing of who we are as a people.
     Several outstanding films have been released over the past few months that put a face on our modern warriors and their experience of war in Afghanistan.  Like most powerful films, none of them take an official position on the war itself, leaving it to viewers to draw their own conclusions.  What emerges instead are revealing portraits of those who fight our battles for us, often at great personal cost.
     The most famous of these is Restrepo, nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year's Oscars and at the Independent Spirit Awards, among a host of other honors.  Over the course of a year, documentary filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington embedded with a platoon of US soldiers in the embattled Korengal Valley.  There are no interviews with generals, politicians or political pundits--just 90 minutes with ordinary soldiers on the front lines, observing the experience through their eyes.  It's the closest you'll come to the experience of a US soldier in battle without actually being there.
     The average soldier used to serve a year or two of enlistment before discharge.  Now that soldier can be called back into the combat zone for up to three separate deployments.  Post Traumatic Stress afflicts veterans in the hundreds of thousands, and the Veterans Administration barely acknowledges the repercussions--broken families, maladjustment to civilian life and suicide, among others.  
     Restrepo provides a window into an experience that our soldiers can't seem to talk about but can't stop reliving.  During a Q&A at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, filmmakers Junger and Hetherington spoke about the thanks they received from family members who now have at least some concept of what their deployed loved ones have been through, an experience Junger referred to as "meat going through a grinder."  

     War creates a strange brotherhood, and that was brought sharply home to me by watching Paul Refsdal's film the day after I saw Restrepo for the first time.  Refsdal is a Norwegian journalist who has made a career of embedding with insurgent units around the globe, not something a journalist from the USA or UK can readily do  Taliban - Behind the Masks is Restrepo from the other side. 

     What struck me most about watching those two films is just how similar the soldiers in the field are to each other, no matter which side they're on.  There are those who sign up for family honor or because they are true believers, but by far most of the recruits are working poor just trying to survive and improve their lot in life.  They fight for promises that in exchange for taking up arms, their leaders will take care of their families and improve their prospects.

     Two low budget feature films that debuted this year, the first at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and the latter at Sundance, cast a light on those who fight and why.   Make a Movie Like Spike, the debut feature of writer-director and actor, Jamil Walker Smith, follows the last 36 hours of two childhood friends before they ship off for Afghanistan.  The ultra-low budget production at first appears deceptively chaotic, like somebody's home movies spliced together, but appearances are deceiving.  By the film's conclusion you'll know you've seen a very effective and hard-hitting portrait of modern warriors.  Smith is best known as Sgt. Ronald Greer of the television series Stargate Universe, a role in which he brings much depth to what could have easily been a one-dimensional character.  His talents as both an actor and a filmmaker are very much in evidence here.

     Benavides Born is not a film about the war in Afghanistan, but it does offer an intriguing and effective glimpse into Uncle Sam's most fertile recruitment ground.  The film follows Luz Garcia, a teenager in a small Texas town where economic prospects are few.  Luz struggles to get into college on an athletic scholarship to avert a future mired in hopeless poverty.  Her older brother has enlisted and been deployed to Afghanistan--a fate she seeks to avoid for herself.

     Filmmaker Amy Wendel and her co-writer, Daniel Meisel, interviewed locals in Benavides, Texas, over a two-year period to create the rich world of the film.  Although it is a work of fiction, Wendel told audiences at a Q&A in Santa Barbara that many locals were used in the production, and that many of the scenes in the film were recreated from actual experience.
     Some of those images are disturbing.  Military recruiters roam the halls of the school, talking to any kid who will listen about the great opportunities available through military service.  In case that doesn't work, local law enforcement officers routinely show up at the local high school to perform surprise classroom inspections with drug-sniffing dogs.  Of course, the lack of sound judgment and drive to experiment that defines the American teen means the lawmen always turn up violators.
     You would think they would provide counseling for these young people and put them in rehab if called for, but what they actually do is incarcerate them for a few months and leave them with a felony record.  You can't get a good-paying job with the local oil company if you have a felony conviction, and since that's the only game in town if you don't want to spend your life in abject poverty, what's a teen to do, or a parent for that matter if the kid is under 18?  You guessed it.  You sign them over to Uncle Sam and send them to the front lines so the government will erase the conviction.

     It's interesting that on the central coast of California where I live, you won't find military recruiters roaming the halls of local schools, and you don't commonly see military unit flags in the windows of the posh homes of the American Riviera, but go inland a few miles to working class communities like Santa Paula and Fillmore, and you'll see those flags in large numbers. 
     In countless interviews I've heard soldiers say they joined up to earn career advancement, or to go with their buddies to keep them out of harm's way.  It's amazing how war can take the noblest of human values--the aspiration to better oneself, love for those closest to us--and grind them up into something terrible.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Two Gems from the Land Down Under

     The Santa Barbara International Film Festival hosted the world premiere of two outstanding films this past week from the lands down under.   Face to Face won the festival's  prestigious Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema, a well-deserved honor in my opinion.  Working from his own adaptation of the David Williamson play, Australian director Michael Rymer shot the film in only 12 days, with virtually the entire story taking place in a single room.
     The story opens as 10 obviously angry people sit facing each other in chairs only a few feet apart, a distance that might as well be the Grand Canyon.  Soon we learn that the young man with the belligerent attitude had earlier beat up his foreman and deliberately rammed his vehicle into a car driven by the owner of the company.  The individuals in the room are there to meet with an arbitrator at the pleading of the young man's mother, and a successful arbitration is the only thing standing between the youth and a likely prison sentence if the case goes to court.  It's clear that no one, except perhaps the arbitrator and the boy's mother, really wants to be there.
     What seems at first to be a clear-cut case of a foolish youth acting out, turns into something else entirely as each person in the room shares his or her piece of the story.  The reality that ultimately emerges is at times very funny and at times poignant, enhanced by the powerful performances of the Australian A-list cast in the tradition of 12 Angry Men and Executive Suite
     During the three years I lived in Japan in the 1980s, I was told that the first thing the Japanese police do when they arrive at the scene of an auto accident is have each party apologize to the other before any discussion of fault begins.  When I returned to the United States and observed how quickly we Americans fly off the handle over the tiniest things, the wisdom of that approach was clear to me.  Face to Face reminds us how insensitive we can be to those around us, and that we are usually complicit in the misfortunes that result.
     Just when I thought there can't possibly be another spin on the western genre, a film like Good for Nothing pops up from New Zealand and shows me just how wrong I can be.  I'd like to call this "kiwi western" a cross between a Sergio Leone spaghetti western and Blazing Saddles, but that really doesn't do it justice.
     Shot entirely in New Zealand, this story of the American west features a cast of wonderful character actors, a vintage train, wide open New Zealand country that looks just like the old west, authentic costumes, and even a Maori actor who so convincingly embodies his role as an Indian that one woman at the Santa Barbara Q&A that  followed a screening asked writer-director Mike Wallis how he found a Native American actor in New Zealand (no kidding). 
     In this debut film, Wallis pays homage to Leone by precisely replicating his visual and dramatic style, while simultaneously turning it on its head and poking fun at it.  Even the silent, macho man-with-no-name outlaw so perfectly embodied by Clint Eastwood in the Leone films, and so well recreated here by actor Cohen Halloway, is hard to take seriously when he turns out to have a debilitating case of ED.
    Good for Nothing looks big budget, but according to Wallis, he and his crew shot it for the price of a car (and not a luxury car).   I can't possibly describe this wonderfully entertaining film in a way that will do it justice, so I'll just end with a strong recommendation to find out where it's playing next and see it for yourself while it's still on the big screen.  Don't wait for the DVD!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Love at Its Most Pure

     I didn't rush to see Jack Goes Boating during its limited art house release but now I wish I had, and I'm grateful I didn't miss it altogether thanks to the power of Netflix.  This is the directorial debut of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who leads a wonderful cast that includes Amy Ryan and John Ortiz.  Hoffman plays Jack, a limo driver who aspires to raise his economic stature by landing a job as a driver for the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority.  He doesn't expect a lot from life and life has certainly obliged him to this point, but then his best friend, Clyde (played by Ortiz), sets him up on a blind date with his wife's new coworker, Connie. 
     Jack and Connie are not the prettiest couple around, but the two of them hit it off and embark on a relationship that stretches them both out of their comfort zones.  What makes the story so touching is the lengths Jack goes to express his love for Connie, reminding me of my all-time favorite line from another romantic comedy about less-than-perfect lovers:  "You make me want to be a better man"  (Jack Nicholson to Helen Hunt in As Good as It Gets). Jack goes out of his way to learn to cook and conquer his fear of water by learning to swim so he can take Connie boating.  
     The transformative power of love turns Jack and Connie into better, more fulfilled human beings, while the lack of it sends Clyde's marriage into a tailspin at the same time.  This is a film about love at its best--freely given and unconditional.  Jack is no more a wealthy prince than Connie is a beautiful princess, but they teach us by example that real love between two people is less a socioeconomic arrangement or solution to personal insecurity, and much more about being our best selves and supporting those we love.  I'll take that over a fairy tale ending any day.