Tuesday, April 1, 2008

"Innocent Voices" and other recent DVD releases

"Innocent Voices, " directed by Luis Mandoki and written by Mandoki and Oscar Orlando Torres, received a limited U.S. release in 2005, but is just now finding its way to DVD. It tells the story of the 11th year in the life of a boy named Chava (Carlos Padilla) and is set in El Salvador during the 1980s, when that country was in the grips of a civil war. That Chava is in his 11th year is important because, according to this story (much of which is supposedly based on events in Torres’s life), the El Salvadorian army conscripts all boys when they turn 12, so this is supposedly the last year of Chava’s innocence. There is not, however, much chance for innocence in the El Salvador pictured by Mandoki and Torres. In the opening scene, Chava and three of his friends are being marched to their execution by the army and the film then flashes back to see what leads up to this moment. We see families like Chava’s caught in the middle of gun battles in their own homes and in their schools. We see the army soldiers stopping two young girls on a street and forcing them into a truck where they will be taken to be raped. A priest (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), who tries to prevent this abduction, is beaten. We see Chava’s Uncle Beto (Jose Maria Yazpik) sneak into Chava’s village, futilely try to save the life of a young girl shot during a gunfight and then serenade Chava with a lilting guerilla song. We see Chava’s somewhat-too-beautiful-to-be-beieved mother (Leonor Varela) whose sole political purpose is to protect her three children, of which Chava is the eldest. (Chava’s father left for the United States when the wore broke out, so Chava was designated "the man of the house.") If all this seems terribly one-sided and heavy-handed, it is. And while it succeeds on one level—telling the story of a family simply trying to survive in a whirlpool of madness—it fails on the higher, political level. Mandoki is too emersed in the ways of Hollywood film making when he should have taken more of a guerilla approach. While the story does evoke sympathy, it never manages outrage. Grade: C+

"Wristcutters: A Love Story" begins with Zia (Patrick Fugit) slashing his wrists over the dead end relationship he’s in with Desiree (Leslie Bibb). The rest of the movie deals with the miserable world the victims of suicide find themselves in after they have killed themselves. You might not guess it from the these first two sentences, but this movie is a comedy; in fact, an almost endearing road comedy. Zia winds up in this lifeless town where he says everything is about the same as it was in actual life, except "a little bit worse." He works in a pizza parlor and hangs out in a bar after work with Eugene (Sheah Wigham) a failed Russian musician who electrocuted himself during his band’s set one night in a dingy nightclub. Zia realizes he misses Desiree more in death than he ever did in life and when he learns that she killed himself about a month after his suicide, he sets out to find her, enlisting Eugene as his traveling companion. Along the way they pick up Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon) who believes she’s there by mistake — she didn’t deliberately kill herself, she accidentally overdosed — and is searching for those in charge of the place so they can send her back. They wind up a commune run by Kneller (Tom Waits) where Eugene meets and falls in love with Nanuk (Mikal P. Lazarev), a mute Eskimo. Meanwhile Zia and Mikal are drawn closer together until a search for Kneller’s dog takes them to the temple of the Messiah (Will Arnett) and his able assistant, Desiree. This is a romantic comedy that’s better than most of today’s romantic comedies (which, admittedly is not saying much), but is unable to deal with themes like death with the humor than Woody Allen brought to this same subject 30 years ago. If, however, you are in the mood for 90 minutes of offbeat humor, you could do a lot worse. Grade: C

The problem with "The Kite Runner" is that director Marc Forster has taken a popular novel, stripped it of its bite and authenticity and left nothing but the sentimentality. It also doesn’t help that his story revolves around a dull coward, while the novel painted a fascinating portrait of an evolving Afghanistan between 1978 and 2000. In those early days, Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) were the best of friends even though Hassan was the son of a servant in Amir’s household, a Hazara, an excised ethnic minority, and Shiite Muslim while Amir was Sunni and a member of the privileged class. Amir’s father, Baba (wonderfully played by Homayoun Ershadi), seems more fond of Hassan than his own son, correctly seeing that Amir doesn’t have much of a backbone. That lack of courage comes to haunt Amir when he sees his friend sexually assaulted by a group of street toughs and he does nothing to help him. Then comes the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Baba, who has a well known reputation as a virulent anti-communist, barely escapes into neighboring Pakistan and eventually to California where Amir grows into manhood (Khalid Abdalla), marries and becomes a published novelist. Then he gets a phone call that forces him to return to the now Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Unlike the book, the movie never gives us the texture of the pre-invasion Afghanistan, a glimpse of the one controlled by the Soviets and tragedy of the country once it was co-opted by the Taliban. Instead, we get the dull adventures of Amir the Coward which climax in a non-rousing and somewhat unbelievable ending. Grade: C

No comments: