Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Weekend Movie Roundup

I'm on Day 3 of my renewed commitment to post regularly, and I'm already behind by a day. Oh well. At least no one is actually reading this.

Or are they?

Born Into Brothels (2004)
Winner of the Academy Award for Documentary Feature, Born Into Brothels peeks into the lives of eight children living in Calcutta’s red light district. The children are given cameras and photography lessons by director/photographer Zana Briski and then set loose in their neighborhood to document their world. The resulting photos are a heartbreakingly beautiful mix of childhood whimsy and harsh reality, as are the children themselves. We see them fly kites, ride bikes, and giggle like any other child. On a trip to the beach, they sing and dance and splash in the waves. But then, in interviews, the children explain matter-of-factly how their mothers make their living---through prostitution---with only a thin curtain to separate the child from the business. The girls talk about how they are expected to “join the line” when they are old enough to prostitute themselves, and the boys worry about their friends’ futures. We see the filth and violence of their lives.

As dazzling and stunning as the images are, however, the film ultimately is rather shallow. Briski, and her co-writer/co-director Ross Kauffman, kept the focus on the photography classes rather than using that as a frame for delving deeper into the lives of the children and their families, leaving the sense that this is more of a public relations video, meant to be played at fundraisers, than a feature-length documentary.

When we do get glimpses of the problems that the children face---lack of good education, official prejudice because their parents are deemed “criminals”---the focus shifts from the children to Briski and her personal frustrations with Indian bureaucracy. Indeed, much of the second half of the movie revolves around Briski’s concerns for the children and the obstacles she faces in trying to help them; just as we’ve become invested in these children, they are pushed to the background.

Overall, Born Into Brothels is much like the children’s photographs: beautiful and endearing, but amateurish and incomplete.

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
The Spanish-language Diarios de Motocicleta dramatizes the 1950s road trip of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Alberto Granado. The two men set off from their native Argentina to explore South America---to see a continent that they knew only from books and school, as Guevara says. And to sample the South American women, as Granado says. Their adventure becomes a life changing experience for both of them as they encounter indigenous people who have been forced out of their homes and off their farms by rich landowners, as well as lepers in a medical colony.

The film succeeds in every way. The writing, based on diaries written by Guevara and Granado, is tight---insightful without becoming heavy-handed, humorous and endearing in parts, while stirring and disturbing in others. The cinematography is a beautiful blend of stunning landscapes and tragic humanity. The acting is superb: Gael García Bernal plays Guevara as a blend of thoughtful, naive, and mischievous---alternating between upright idealism and subversive fun---in other words, a typical 24-year-old. Rodrigo De la Serna similarly brings a subtlety to Granado, who although older is less thoughtful and serious than Guevara, yet de la Serna never lets Granado become stock character. Despite his womanizing and thrill seeking, Granado takes his friendship seriously---caring for Guevara during illness---and is affected by the encounters with the poor and sick, although mostly in his growing respect for Guevara.

Where the film most succeeds, however, is in pulling us into Guevara’s story. We are lulled into the easy fun of the road trip and then jarred by the images of the indigenous poor. Most of us know little more---or less---about the conditions in South America than Guevara did at the beginning of his trip, and we learn as he learns, little by little. The movie gradually reveals the truth to us as Guevara’s eyes are opened, through images and encounters, without ever becoming pedantic or sentimental. And in the end, much like Guevara, we feel a stirring that something isn’t quite right and an urge to know more.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Writers Charles Kaufman and Michel Gondry garnered a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The accessible, yet experimental, film deftly explores such big issues as the meaning of sadness, the limits of technology, the ethics of privacy, and the role of fate through the small story of one romance.

Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) is a quiet, uptight homebody. Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) is an outspoken, free-spirited party girl. We experience their romance in reverse as Joel has his memories of Clementine erased, after learning that she has already undergone the procedure. Joel willingly lets go of the pain of rejection, the bitterness of their final fights, and the ugliness of a soured love. But when his memories of the good times---of late-night pillow talks and silly games and romantic escapades---begin to disappear, Joel regrets his decision and fights to keep Clementine in his memory. Meanwhile, the “scientists” who are removing Joel’s memories (played with delightful dorkiness by Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood and wonderful pretension by Kirsten Dunst) are forced to sort through the messes that they have created in their own lives.

The story is quirky enough that it could have gotten caught up in its own invention, but Kaufman and Gondry keep it grounded in a simple story of love gone wrong and a series of sweet, telling, and thoroughly human moments. Both Carrey and Winslet shine in out-of-character roles that force them out of their “characters” and into embodying the roles.


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