Tuesday, November 29, 2016

1993 Winner, Belle Époque

Belle Époque
Director:  Fernando Trueba

Distributed by:  Sony Pictures Classics,

Released:  December 1992

Country: Spain

Do you ever channel surf and find yourself landing at Telemundo or Univision when they’re showing those telenovelas with the silly acting and mucho caliente actresses?  Do you leave it on with no subtitles even though you have no idea what is going on until your wife walks in, when you pretend you were just flipping through to find a ball game, or maybe tell her you forgot where The History Channel is?  This has never happened to me.  But if it has to you, this is your movie.

Fernando with The Wild One
Belle Époque is set in 1931 Spain, a country in political turmoil.  This is before Francisco Franco took over in 1936 (he’s still dead) during the Spanish Civil War.  Before the Civil War, the Traditional Monarchists were fighting the Republicans.  These Spanish Republicans weren’t the fun kind like Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, but were secularists who were no friends to the Catholic Church. 

The movie centers around Fernando, a pretty boy who used to live in a seminary, now deserting the Traditionalist army because he has gone agnostic somehow, possibly because of what he has seen in the war.  He meets an old man and befriends him, and is invited to stay at the old man's home for awhile.  The old guy takes a liking to him because Fernando, while in the seminary, learned to cook better than the Galloping Gourmet.  
The Lesbian

Fernando stays with him a little while and is getting ready to get on a train out of town when he finds out the old man has four super-hot daughters about to return home.  One is a widow; one’s engaged, and a bit on the wild side; and one’s a lesbian.  Fernando has spend the last few years in the army and in the seminary, so he's not picky.  And Fernando has some serious luck with women—he looks sweet and innocent, doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing, but is able to get more girls in the sack in two hours than Frank Sinatra did in any given two weeks.
The Widow
Now I said there were four daughters, and Fernando can't decide which one he wants.  He takes a crack at the oldest three one by one, thinking he may be in love with each--even the lesbian, who seduces him in the movie's most strange and funny scene.  The youngest daughter is an 18-or-19-year-old Penelope Cruz.  She’s the tough nut to crack because she’s a virgin, but don’t think that will stop Fernando from doing everything he can to change that.   

The Virgin
Overall, I wasn’t sure if this film really worked as a comedy, or maybe would have been better as a long telenovela, but in the end it was fun enough to watch.  It certainly felt like a guilty pleasure.  I did leave on the subtitles the whole time, but to be honest, I spent most of the film trying to decide which daughter was the hottest; while I had to rely on sight, Fernando is able to use all senses to answer that question, and use them all he does.  Who will he end up with?

The Title:  Literally, the “Beautiful Era.”  The term really is supposed to refer to pre-World War I Europe; I suppose it refers to the time in Spain between the Monarchy in 1931 and Franco in 1936.  Or the time Fernando is living in a house with four beautiful women.

The Culture:  You do get a flavor for the constant flux in Spanish politics before the totalitarian Generalissimo Francisco Franco took over with the help of his amigos Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolin.  Rural Spain back then seemed like it would be a lovely place to vacation.

Agenda Danger:  Nothing major, but there are a few Traditionalist/Catholic characters that come off as silly, hypocritical, and stuffy.  The secularism of the Republicans seems to come off as a bit more rational.

Best Picture that year:  Schindler’s List

Rating:  Light in tone and visually satisfying (see above: did I mention the four hot daughters?).  Why not check it out?

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

1994 Winner, Burnt by the Sun

Burnt by the Sun

Director:   Nikita Mikhalkov

Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics

Released:  May 1994

Country:  Russia

The title Burnt by the Sun brings to my mind the Greek myth of Icarus.  Icarus’s father Daedalus was the Wilber/Orville Wright of his mythical generation and created wings that would allow humans to fly.  Icarus was the guinea pig for the flying machine, but Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun.  Icarus got full of himself and did in fact fly with too much altitude, causing the wax holding the wings in place to melt (the gods know where Daedalus got his engineering degree).  Icarus’s wings came undone and he had to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River.  Or worse.

In Burnt by the Sun, our Icarus is Sergei Kotov, a colonel in the Red army sometime in the 1930’s.  Kotov, we learn early on, is a kind-hearted bear of a man, a hero of the Soviet Revolution, and a good party man.  While on a vacation in the country, he takes it upon himself to intervene on behalf of local peasant farmers to stop an army commander from using their farm as a practice arena for the his tanks.  Kotov returns to his vacation dacha, spending time with his young pretty wife Marusya, his little daughter Nadya (who has him wrapped around her finger), and Marusya’s eccentric family.  Kotov further displays his easy-going nature, vacationing with the family of weirdos and taking it all in stride.
Luckily, Icarus never had to answer to the NTSB

Kotov’s goodwill is tested, however, when who should pop in during the vacation but Marusya’s ex-boyfriend!  Like Owen Wilson in Meet the Parents, all the family knows and loves Dimitri and thought Marusya should have married Dmitri years ago. (“Why didn’t you?!”)  But unlike the Owen Wilson/Teri Polo relationship in that movie, the reason Dimitri didn’t marry Marusya had to do with the fact he was an enemy of the Red Army and sort of “disappeared” for a while once the Soviets took over.  And so though Ben Stiller really kinda liked Owen Wilson and even would go on to do several other projects with him, the viewer gets the feeling Colonel Kotov is never really going to warm up to his wife’s old flame.

Burnt by the Sun portrays a bucolic Soviet Union, a great place to own a little cottage out in the country and hang out in the off-season.  That’s great for an Old Guard buddy of Stalin, but Dimitri’s reason for coming is mysterious and certainly seems like it could potentially ruin Kotov’s vacation.  Dimitri plays piano, jokes with the family, and makes nice with little Nadya, but we get the sense early on he is full of Bolshevik.  I won’t go further than that.
Kicked his ass in the Revolution and still her dad likes him better!

The plot does tend to drag a bit here and there, but I found the complexity of the characters to be what makes the film work.  The potential love triangle brings a fair amount of suspense, and some of the best moments of the film are the scenes of Kotov and the daughter who adores him (Kotov is played by Nikita Mikhalkov, who also directed; his daughter is played by his real-life daughter Nadya).  Kotov likely sees himself as of the people and a man of importance, buying into the Marxism of the Revolution and believing in the goodness of Communism.  But being a friend of Stalin in the 1930’s was a little like flying a little too close to the sun.  And for Kotov, there may not be a Hudson (with Moscow on it or otherwise) for him to land in.

The Title:  Utomlennye solntsem.  Literally, “Wearied by the sun,” a lyric from a Russian song written in the 1930’s and featured in this film.  I think “Burnt” works better.

The Culture:  In the Soviet Union, if you were a government bigshot like Kotov, the government might give you a nice little dacha to have as a second home.  It certainly seems pleasant enough.

Colonel Kotov and Nadya
Agenda Danger:  Burnt by the Sun ends with a dedication to those “burnt by the sun” of the Russian Revolution.  Walter Duranty, a writer for the New York Times around the time this film takes place, wrote a series of articles about what a swell place the Soviet Union was.  He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work.  Duranty’s reporting didn’t see fit to honestly assess the truth of what the Soviet Union really was.  While the New York Times has admitted his reporting was shameful, it’s noteworthy that the Pulitzer board has chosen not to revoke his prize.  Which doesn’t surprise me one bit.

Best Picture that year:  Forrest Gump

Rating:  Mikhalkov made a sequel to this in 2010.  It is considered the biggest bomb in the history of Russian cinema.  Why they made that film, I don’t know.  This one stood out well enough on its own.  Worth seeing, if not an outstanding movie.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

1995 Winner, Antonia's Line

Antonia’s Line

Director:  Marleen Gorris

Distributed by:  Asmik Ace Entertainment

Released:  September 1995

Country:  Netherlands

I have no beef with the concept of the “chick flick.”  Movie genres are supposed to have formulas they follow, otherwise they wouldn’t be genres.  And if one of those formulas is intended to predominately appeal to the sensibilities of the female gender, who am I to judge?  That said, chick flicks are, by definition, going to be enjoyed more by chicks than they would be by the fellas.  Antonia’s Line, a Dutch movie about a woman and her descendants, doesn’t strictly fit the formula of the “chick flick” per se, since chick flicks usually center around romance and relationships, but let me tell you, this movie was not made for the dudes.

The movie centers around, appropriately enough, an old, then young (by flashback), then old again Antonia.  She is returning to her town a widow, arriving with her young daughter Danielle sometime shortly after World War II to be there for her mom’s imminent death.  There isn’t much of a plot here.  It’s more like a chronicling of a life--Antonia’s life.  Maybe they meant to call it "Antonia's Life" but the print-setter (probably a guy) screwed up or something.  Anyway,  Antonia is the matron and center of not only her family, but the town and its quirky inhabitants.  Danielle grows to be an artist, and wants to be a mother without having to be a wife.  When she does become a mother, it is to a precocious and pretty girl named Thérèse, who is the movie’s narrator.

Antonia and Danielle
The film has been called a feminist fairy tale and I don’t object to the description, though I don’t see the need for such a label.  The story follows “Antonia’s line”:  her mother, Antonia, her daughter, and her granddaughter.  We are presented with examples of how a male-dominated society works, all in negative terms.  A Catholic woman (humorously, I guess?) howls at the moon because she cannot consummate her relationship with her Protestant love.  A man who has raped not one but two women of the town, including one with a mental handicap, is dealt with by Antonia with a satisfying curse.  A Catholic priest, a good man (there is such a thing?), finds joy only after renouncing his priesthood.  And on and on.

Antonia, played likably by Willeke van Ammelrooy, provides a solid tent-post for the vignettes that make up the film.  While the relationships and goings on (including quite a sex montage--dudes may like this part) whirl around her, Antonia is the wise matron who provides stability and wise leadership to the townspeople.

I tried not to read too much into Antonia’s Line—it pretends to be a comedy but I didn’t find myself amused very often.  If the filmmaker (a woman) really did have a point to make, it wasn’t aimed at me.  The movie isn’t exactly a chick-flick, by definition, but it is to be watched and enjoyed by women.  And that’s okay. . . . It’s just that I won’t watch this one ever again.

Why yes, they are Bugle Boy jeans!
The Title:  The title is a hint that there may be a feminist message here--as in, her hereditary line is comprised of females, not males (i.e., a matriarchy).  Going in, I thought perhaps Antonia’s line might be what she used to pick up men at those Dutch bars, like: “Excuse me, are those Bugle Boy jeans you're wearing?”

The Culture:  Three Dutch films have won Best Foreign Film:  1997’s dreary Character, set in the 1920’s; The Assault, from 1986 (not yet reviewed, set in the scary Hungry Winter in 1945 Netherlands); and this one, set in the period beginning just after World War II and the next few decades.  The bucolic setting of Antonia’s Line is certainly a more pleasant picture of Holland than the other two, even if realism isn’t what it was going for.

Braveheart:  Not a feminist fairy tale
Agenda Danger:  No reason to get up in arms here, though some critics have.  The director, Marleen Gorris, said she made the film to show you could make an interesting story about women’s lives, saying in most mainline movies the “women are there, but they’re there to bear the children.”  Gorris tackles a harder feminist position in several of her other films, but this one is mostly about life and death and love from a female perspective.

Best Picture that year:  Braveheart.  Just about as different a film as you can imagine.

Rating:  Women will like it more than men, and that’s . . . okay.