Tag Archives: Movies (2021)

Icelandic drama ‘The County’ a tough ode to the free market

On first glance the politics of The County will surprise viewers who assume filmmakers pursue liberal causes. Dairy farmers Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) and her husband Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson) have depended, like the rest of their rural Icelandic community, on a co-op for food, equipment, health care, and companionship; but they have paid a price by being in debt up to their eyeballs. After Reynir’s mysterious death in a car crash, Inga fights back: all she wants is fair play, competition. Writer-director Grímur Hákonarson understands these hard-bitten people and how neighbors they’ve known their whole lives can suddenly turn into jailors.

The establishing shot is no-nonsense: a glimpse of the forbidding wind-blasted mountainous territory in which these farmers live. Close-ups of udders and manure-drenched earth register as Poetry of The Common Man; these people are the Salt of the Earth. Inga and Reynir haven’t had a vacation in three years. For distraction Reynir has a few beers with farmer buddies. The children have married and moved out. Their work is their life, and from the way Hákonarson’s script presents it the co-op comes off like Frank Norris’ Octopus: a quietly suffocating force. One night Reynir runs his truck off the road; the police can’t determine whether it was accidental. A devastated Inga learns that farm life does not pause for bereavement. Co-op leader Eyjólfur (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) says the right things. A co-op, after all, takes care of its own. As her confidence deepens, however, so does her rage. Co-op members borrow her equipment without permission — until it’s made clear it’s not “her” equipment. The co-op owns her livestock, land, farm. So she does what people over fifty do when they seek an outlet for this rage: she writes a Facebook post addressing “the Co-Op Mafia.” When it goes viral, the local news station interviews her. Appeals to her good sense, her loyalty — they fail.

Egilsdótti is nearly every frame of The County, and she’s terrific as a woman whose experience watching countless cycles of death and life has not prepared her for the moment she’s bereft. She’s most alive when angry, for example when she fills a truck to the brim, drives to co-op headquarters, and sprays the facade and parked vehicles with freshly unpasteurized milk. And when she finds sympathy from neighbors themselves bled dry by the co-op she emerges as a leader.

It’s at this moment when The County falters. Lowkey when not under-dramatized, the film presents the co-op’s functionaries as politely malevolent. “Competition” gets brought up often; the farmers want more it, thinking it will lower costs. They may be right. But Hákonarson won’t clarify his film’s politics. If he wanted to direct a pro-capitalism or implicitly anti-union film, then this is how The County presents itself. Ken Loach would not approve, not least because Hákonarson might’ve titled his movie Poor Cow.

GRADE: B

The County is streaming at Coral Gables Art Cinema.

Exploring British jazz scenes and gay blues: Miami Jewish Film Festival 2021

The curious have two days until the end of the Miami Jewish Film Festival. I wrote about two other screenings, one of which I had some involvement. The best part for the interested: you pay a donation of your choice instead of a flat admission fee to stream a movie. Continue reading

Eastern European Cold War film ‘Isaac’ as precise and mysterious as poetry

Few Americans get to watch films set in the Baltic states over which the West and the former Soviet Union haggled for decades. On that basis alone Isaac is worth watching. It’s also an ambitious piece of work: as precise and mysterious as poetry. The young Lithuanian writer-director Jurgis Matulevicius took his film to Tallinn’s Black Nights Film Festival two years ago in 2019; it streams now as part of Miami Jewish Film Festival’s excellent lineup. Confident and dialectical, Isaac deserves a wide audience who warmed to, say, Toni Erdmann and The Square and especially the inferior Cold War. Continue reading

Eric Rohmer’s ‘Tales of the Four Seasons’ the ultimate valentine to friendship, chatter, and wine

It’s as if color excited him again, only instead of cornflowers and lilies and poppies the unexpected and often tacky juxtapositions endemic to 1980s fashion did the trick. No matter how thoughtful and droll My Night at Maud’s and Claire’s Knee were, writer-director Eric Rohmer filmed his best work two decades later. At the dawn of the Mitterand era with his Comedies and Proverbs series, Rohmer figured how to embellish epigrams; by the time he began his Tales of the Four Seasons, thanks to cinematographers Luc Pagès and Diane Baratier, he had perfected his method. Space and light and talk: Rohmer films are the visual equivalents of Saint Etienne albums. Continue reading

Screenings #46

If any streaming service has stepped up by acknowledging how reality encroaches on the normal way of doing things, it’s Criterion Channel. Since the George Floyd protests and the advent of #MeToo, the service has offered obscure or unscreened work by women and women of color. Cheryl Dunye was unknown to me last summer. Continue reading

Ken Burns’ ‘Hemingway’ concentrates on the writer as much as the myth

Hemingway concentrates on writing and a writer. The order matters. Most documentaries will have feasted on lives as libidinous as dear Ernest’s; Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s work, airing on PBS, does too, let me be clear, but how Hemingway fashioned a world-historic prose style consumes most of the first third. This is a plus. The second plus is a shrewd political choice. By recruiting Edna O’Brien as a talking head to praise Hemingway’s short stories for their uncommon sympathy toward their female characters, Burns and Novick placate critics who for decades recoiled from the fiction’s brawnier exertions; and before feminists get the blame, remember Zelda Fitzgerald, herself a pretty good writer, came up with the sharpest career-encompassing zinger: “Bull fighting, bull slinging, and bullshit.”
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George Segal — RIP

The lead actor in a childhood I was too young to know, George Segal incarnated an adulthood that would effluoresce and vanish by the time his peak decade ended. Men around me looked like him until Hollywood stopped making movies about and for people who looked like him. Like contemporary and erstwhile co-star Elliot Gould he was everywhere, like secondhand smoke from Salems.

Earning his only Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor as the straight man — in every sense — in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Segal turned the following decade into a referendum: from now on, he played Richard Burton’s George, the Rabelaisian wit who yielded to impulses he was too squishy to suppress and too infatuated with the new freedoms to give a shit about. What timing. Paul Mazursky’s favorite actor, an indelible part of fortysomething manhood suddenly entering the ’70s and needing mutton chops and free love: think The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), The Hot Rock (1972), Blume in Love (1973), California Split (1974). Exasperation was his muse — I hope Philip Roth had him in mind when creating his silly egoists. As a result, Blume in Love is the queasiest experience for twenty-first century audiences. A whiner of monstrous appetites, the title character becomes so frustrated at his inability to woo back his wife (played by Susan Aspach) that he rapes her in a scene and an aftermath that takes for granted the male viewer’s quiet approval (The New York Times‘ obit this morning: writer-director Mazursky treats the rape “a transgression suitably redressed by a punch in the nose”). Last summer for the first time in two decades I re-watched Blume (note the Roth- and Joyce-indebted title!) and could barely finish it.

After years in eighties TV purgatory, he found his footing again: perfection opposite Mary Tyler Moore as the harried husband in David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster; his double takes are masterpieces of exhaustion. I was the only one at a 1 p.m. screening in early summer ’96, laughing like a fool.

‘I Care a Lot’ witlessly revels in evil

If a casting director needs an actress ready to supply strained wickedness, Rosamund Pike will do. Blank of mien, she has starred or co-starred as a B-level Charlie Theron, lacking that South African actress’ lightness of touch. I Care a Lot is the ideal vehicle for Pike: witless and heavy-handed. This Netflix film aims for an early Alexander Payne approach to the story about a scammer who thanks to pliant judges gains guardianship over wealthy seniors for the sake of fleecing them out of money and property. I Care a Lot is one of those films so knocked out by what it thinks is a delight in evil that plausibility, a sense of pace, and some kind of modulation of the performances occurs to no one. Continue reading

Modernity encroaches on Mexican village in ‘Nudo Mixteco’

Nudo Mixteco (dir. Ángeles Cruz).

The rural Mexico of director Ángeles Cruz is a mix of myth and dust. Ambitious storytelling distinguishes Nudo Mixteco from the rest of the festival fare. Three stories intermingle. In the first, Maria (Sonia Couoh) returns to San Mateo, a village of the Mixtec Oaxaca. A funeral is taking place, but the bells really toll for the death of any relationship with her father, who savagely rejects Maria for her lesbianism. The funeral and subsequent party act as leitmotifs. The second story involves Esteban (Noé Hernández), who returns from America expecting a reunion with his wife but instead realizes she has cheated on him. Meanwhile Toña (Myriam Bravo) wants to break the cycle of sexual abuse started by her uncle and maintained by her adoring mother.

Working with an indigenous cast of non-actors, Cruz demonstrates an Antonioni-indebted fascination with how topography builds character. She knows these people, their peccadilloes and weaknesses; she understands why a Maria would want to flee but, more interesting for dramatic purposes, what draws her back for another round of pain. Modernity may encroach on San Mateo’s values, but it remains impregnable, for better or worse.

Showings: Tue, Mar 9., 8 p.m. @ Silverspot Cinema
Wed, Mar 10., noon @ Virtual

Waking nightmares distinguish a pair of Miami Film Festival offerings

I saw one of 2021’s best film last week.

Quo Vadis, Aida? (dir. Jasmila Žbanić)

The series of bloody nightmares that happened after Yugoslavia broke into its composite states took the world by surprise because genocides, euphemized as “ethnic cleansing,” weren’t supposed to happen in the Europe of the 1990s. The title character played by Jasna Djuricic works as a translator who gets caught up in the impending massacre of Bosnians by Serbs at Srebrenica. Her efforts to do good are for naught; the killing happens under the noses of a helpless United Nation, whose officers had their orders to stand down. Taut and gripping, Quo Vadis, Aida? follows the tradition of The Killing Fields with a difference: by centering her film on Djuricic, Jasmila Žbanić (whose Grbavica won the Golden Bear in 2006), like Luis Puenzo did with Norma Aleandro in The Official Story (1985), has created a film whose protagonist registers what transpires with growing horror.

The dehumanizing effects of war have in modern film rarely been dramatized as well as Žbanić, cinematographer Christine A. Maier, and especially editor Jarosław Kamiński. Offhand moments like the corpse of a woman with three precise bullets in her back get their weight. Aida has to stay sober while translating terrifying orders. Worse, she knows some of the young Serb soldiers, has watched them grow up. And she worries about her husband and sons, held virtually captive in the camp outside the UN base. Not even her connections can guarantee them safe passage. When Quo Vadis, Aida? ends with a sequence set a few years after Srebrenica, the weight of what have experienced become overwhelming.

Showings: Sun, Mar 7., 5:30 p.m. @ Silverspot Cinema
Mon, Mar. 8., noon @ virtual

Sun Children (dir. Majid Majidi).

Its first scene is its strongest: a gang of juvenile child thieves escapes pursuers after trying to purloin tires in a Tehran underground garage. Their leader, 12-year-old Ali, gets busted following another botch. Played by Roohollah Zamani with an air of perpetual wonderment, Ali is sent to the Sun School, where compassionate pedagogies and inquisitive teachers hope to reform these children. Not helping mothers is his mother, confined to a mental institution. The Ali learns of the existence of a treasure buried on school grounds he hopes to recover.

This sounds better than it plays. Majid Majidi (Children of Heaven, The Color of Paradise) can’t find the right pace. Zamani isn’t a resourceful enough actor (yet) to sustain a feature film. Scene that show a hustling Ali evoke de Sica and Rossellini but without the visual poetry.

Showings: Mon, Mar 8., 6:30 p.m. @ SILVERSPOT CINEMA
Tue, Mar 9., noon @ virtual