Salut cousin!
Russian Dolls
11'09''01 - September 11
L'auberge espagnole
Run Lola Run*
Paris je t'aime*

-- M. Allouache, France
-- C. Klapisch, France
-- J.P. Jeunet, France
-- Various directors
-- C. Klapisch, France
-- T. Tykwer, Germany
-- Various directors

Good Bye Lenin!*
The Lives of Others*
The Gleaners and I
The Lumière Brothers' First Films
Born Into Brothels
Buena Vista Social Club
-- W. Becker, Germany
-- F. v. Donnersmarck, Germany
-- A. Varda, France
-- B. Tavernier, USA

-- Z. Briski, USA
-- W. Wenders, Germany

* recommended

REVIEW: Salut cousin! (1996)

Algerian born director, Merzak Allouache, showcases the ethnic diversity of Paris in his 1996 comedy Salut cousin! to mixed results. On the one hand, actor Gad Elmaleh's engaging performance as Alilo--a young Algerian stranded in Paris with his streetwise cousin, Mok--effectively portrays the clashings of Arabic and French culture. While on the other hand, the film's choppy style and lackluster plot compromise what could have been a much better commentary on the integration of young Maghrebis into mainstream French society.

The film's two protagonists, Alilo and Mok, really do not have much in common. Our first impression of either of them is auditory, as we hear the two of them greet each other outside of a Parisian train station as the title credits roll. Then, an interesting shot of their lower bodies brings attention to their shoes – Mok with hip Nikes, and Alilo with ordinary sneakers. How they dress is revealing of their contrasting characters. Mok, the wannabe hiphop artist, and Alilo, the stereotypical naïve young Algerian in France. The emphasis on their feet will be revisited throughout the film, especially when Mok shows his cousin around his neighborhood, Paris's slummy 18e arrondissement.

It is almost sobering to see the dirty side of Paris in film – a medium that typically glorifies the French capital. There is little charming about Mok's Parisian neighborhood save the variety of people who call it home. As it turns out, immigrants and global artists don't just live there, but find inspiration there – at least that's what Mok wants his cousin to believe. Ironically, the 'Moskova' neighborhood reminds Alilo of Algiers, a city that he describes as unlivable.

There are several levels of irony and ambiguity in Salut cousin! The overarching plotline is ironic because in only five days Alilo is in many ways better assimilated to French culture than his cousin, Mok. Even the title is ambiguous, as it is unclear which cousin is saying "salut" and whether it is a greeting or a farewell. The characterization of Mok takes the irony of the film to yet another level.

In his quest to remake himself, Mok cuts his ties with his Algerian heritage. He tries to relate to white-France by fusing La Fontaine fables into his rap lyrics, but is booed off the stage on his debut performance. His family on the other hand still watches Algerian TV in their living room. Mok does what he can to make money, but his inability to pay his bookkeeper leads to a climatic stairwell fight scene and his eventual deportation. The film end's in a more traditional style for Alilo, who falls in love with Mok's African neighbor. As cliché as it is, the optimistic close is proof that love transcends all.

Salut cousin! sheds light on a very serious issue in France, but its humor is undermined by the sadness of Mok's eyes as he is told he must return to a homeland with which he does not identify. The integration of Maghrebis is an ongoing challege for French society and this dated comedy provides as few answers as it does laughs.

REVIEW: Russian Dolls (2005)

Cédric Klapisch’s Russian Dolls is the uninspiring sequel to L'auberge espagnole. This time round, the film’s principle figure, Xavier, recounts his attempts to get his life in order since his return to Paris. No longer a wide-eyed Erasmus student, Xavier’s new life revolves around his work as a freelance writer and his search for the perfect mate. The film introduces chaos and the use of cliché as main themes, but its attempts to comment on the effects of globalization underwhelm.  

The film is well edited and visually interesting. Split screen and other creative uses of the frame convey the confusion and frustration of falling in love. The use of a fishbowl lens reflects the self-reflexivity of the film.  And fantasy elements such as the flute-playing Xaviers and the knightly steed that replaces Xavier’s moped develop the film’s light mood. Sound is also well manipulated with volume shifts during zoom-in shots of balcony telephone conversations.

The film’s title is in ironic contradiction to the narrative theme of chaos as it brings the orderliness of Russian nesting dolls to mind. There are several examples of order and disorder in the film. For one, the most immature character from the last film, William, has grown up and found himself a ballerina bride. Celia, the model, has a body as perfectly proportioned as the streets of Moscow. And the friendly neighbor, M. Boubaker, discusses the universe's disorderly beginnings by questioning the validity of the big bang theory. The film successfully fleshes out the theme of chaos through these characters, but ultimately fails to make a statement about globalization in the same way the first film did about European integration.

Russian Dolls is an OK film that provides a few laughs. I agree with Los Angeles Times, staff writer, Carina Chocano, when she writes: “…[Russian Dolls] lacks the specificity and focus of the first.”  Like Xavier, the film tried to do too many things. It introduces many different ideas, but does not develop any of them particularly well.

REVUE EN FRANÇAIS: Amélie (2001)

Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain est un conte de fée moderne réalisé par Jean-Pierre Jeunet. L'intrigue du film se concentre sur la vie d'Amélie qui peut être décrit en un mot: capricieuse. Quand elle était une jeune fille, son père névrosé pensait qu'elle avait un défaut cardiaque. Ainsi, elle n'a jamais été embrassé par son père ou autorisée à rencontrer beaucoup de gens en dehors de son imagination. Avec l'humeur mystérieuse et amusement, le film vous rappelle que peu d'actes de la bonté peuvent changer le destin.

Dans l'exposition, le narrateur omniscient décrit ce qu'Amélie, ses parents, et les autres serveuses au Café des Deux Moulins aiment en n'aiment pas. Les détails sont assez drôles et direct, et elles sont présentées comme si elles venaient d'un livre pour enfants. La musique combine des airs d'accordéon et piano, et elle contribue à l'esprit positif du film.

Dans un instant mémorable, Amélie se demande combien de couples dans Paris sont dans l'orgasme. Ce qui suit est une série de couples qui sont montrés faire l'amour à l'écran dans la succession et puis dans un close-up, Amélie sourit et repond innocemment <<quinze>>. Le film ne semble pas avoir un narration concret jusqu'à ce qu'un jour changer de la vie d'Amélie pour le mieux.

Le 30 août 1997 est le jour de la mort de Lady Di et le jour où Amélie a découvert une boîte à jouets cachée derrière une bain tuile. Le mélange de la réalité (l'actualité à la télé) et le fiction donne à l'histoire temporelle contexte. Nous savons que Amélie est un personnage de fiction, mais elle est présentée comme une partie du monde que nous savons être vrai.

Dans une sorte de jeu de piste, Amelie trouve l'homme qui a caché la boîte quand il était un petit garçon. De ce moment en avant, Amélie croit que sa vocation est à aider les autres. Puis, elle tombe amoureuse d'un homme qui collectionne les photos perdues et poursuit pour lui une grande partie de la deuxième moitié du film. Enfin, le 28 Septembre 1997, Amélie Poulain trouve l'amour et le film se termine.

Tout compte fait, Amélie est une comédie pour tous. Je vous recommande de passer deux heures avec Amélie - elle va changer votre vie.

REVIEW: 11'09''01 - September 11 (2002)

 "...I think that in time people will be able to see that Sept. 11 was an American drama, but also a drama that affected all of humanity."  - Alain Brigand

Eleven filmmakers from around the world respond to the horrific events of September 11th in Alain Brigand's 11'09''01. The French television producer intended to creatively illustrate the global impact of this tragic day, but the message of the compilation is unclear. Several of the shorts convey the sense of shared catastrophe and global compassion that Brigand had hoped for, while others fall flat of expectations.

The submission from Bosnia is particularly moving. It focuses on widowed women from Srebrenica as they prepare for their monthly demonstration. As the women listen to the news from New York on the radio, one woman insists that they must protest "for us and for them". These Bosnian women are the victims of massacre and ethnic cleansing, but they are still able to symphasize with the tremendous human loss of September 11. Director, Danis Tanovic, sends a clear message: suffering knows no boundaries.

The Israeli segment is equally effective in it's chaotic depiction of a car bombing in downtown Tel Aviv. Viewers are thrown into the Jerusalem Avenue scene where they are witness to the confusion police, paramedics, and others try to control. The film sheds a negative light on the role of the media in a catastrophe with its portrayal of an irritating news reporter trying to cover the scene. What the film does well is capture the havoc of the conflict that has become day-to-day on the streets of Israel and Palestine and make the connection with the terrorist attacks in New York City.

In contrast, the UK segment about a Chilean living in exile seems inappropriate. The man narrates his personal story in a letter to families of victims of September 11. More so than in any other film, this short seems politically charged. It takes controversial aim at the United States foreign policy of 1973 in the overthrow of the Chilean government. What this short attempts to do is so far-removed from September 11 that it is practically insensitive.

Overall, Alain Brigand's production is an inconsistent patchwork of artistic commentary. While I admire the boldness of the project, I think that had I watched the film at the time of its release on September 11, 2002, I would have had a very difficult time appreciating any of the film's good qualities.

REVUE EN FRANÇAIS: L'auberge espagnole (2002)

"...une comédie touchante et futée" - Le Point

Avec L’auberge espagnole, réalisateur Cédric Klapisch célèbre la nouvelle génération européenne. L’intrigue se concentre sur la vie de Xavier, un homme français de 25 ans, et son année à Barcelone comme un étudiant d’échange. Là, il partage une appartement avec un groupe d’élèves qui sont tous stéréotypées des pays d'Europe occidentale. Un commentaire sur l’identité, les relations, et l’infidélité, le film met en évidence les complications de la vie européenne moderne.

Malgré l'unité européenne, la vie demeure complexe pour les jeunes Européens. Xavier, par exemple, a un moment très difficile d'obtenir tous les papiers pour le programme Erasmus. Sa lutte est ressentie à travers ses explications répétées de son objectif tout en étudiant à l'étranger. Plus tard, avec un peu d'humour et ironie, un "je suis ici" symbole suit Xavier car il explore Barcelone pour la première fois. En Espagne, le film met l'accent sur la formation de l'identité de Xavier.

Pendant sa visite au neurologue, Xavier rêve qu'il oublie à parler français, sa langue maternelle. La langue est une partie essentielle de l'identité pour la plupart des gens du monde. Mais, elle est également facile de changer, confus, ou oublié. Démontré par Xavier et ses colocataires, la nouvelle identité europeénne est collective - la langue n'est plus une barrière.

Puis en France, Xavier doit reconstruire son identité à nouveau. Quand il rentre à Paris, il se qualifie lui-même <<un étranger parmi les étrangers>>. Au travail, certains de ses collègues plaisanterie au sujet des efforts de la Commission européenne de faire des affaires plus uniforme. C'est l'un des exemple de quand le film semble exprimer un certain scepticisme au sujet de l'intégration européenne. Le film se termine optimiste,  que Xavier se définit lui-même dans le cadre du mélange l'identité européenne il a trouvé en Catalogne.

Bref, L'auberge espagnole est une comédie qui pousse pour la nouvelle Europe. Avec des personnages qui ne cesse de réfléchir sur leur propre identité, le film encourage ses lecteurs à faire de même.

FILM REVIEW: Run Lola Run (1998)

Behind Tom Tykwer’s technical masterpiece, Run Lola Run, lies a simple narrative: Lola has twenty minutes to bring 100,000 Deutsche marks to her boyfriend before his mob boss arrives. Lola runs through the twenty minutes threes times, and each time to a different outcome. High-octane music and swift camerawork give the viewer a true sense of speed as the ‘multiform’ plot challenges narrative conventions of time and space.

Tykwer manipulates narrative time through flashback, flash-forward, and repetition. Back-story is fitted with a black and white lens, while the words: AND THEN trigger still-image depictions of fate for the random characters Lola encounters in her race against time. The frequency and repetition of certain sounds and images contribute to the film’s hyperkinetic style and overall frantic mood. After Lola ends her call with her boyfriend, Lola repeats the word “who” several times as she processes her next move. The repetition reflects her conscious thought, while the stylized camera movement conveys her panic.

The introspective quotations and soccer metaphor that open the film are telling of the film’s theme of causal relationships. What the film shows is how the insignificant can have much larger consequences. Film critic, Kate Matthews, explains in her article "Running in Circles: Form in Run Lola Run" for Australian Screen Education that Run Lola Run is about "...the extent to which coincidence, change, and seemingly random encounters influence fate." How Lola interacts with minor characters becomes extraordinarily important and life-changing. One critical example of this causal relationship involves Lola and the red-shirted bicyclist. By throwing him off path, Lola sets up his meeting with the plastic-bagged bum that ultimately leads to a successful outcome for Lola and her boyfriend.

Run Lola Run is also unmistakably self-reflexive. The animation of Lola running down the winding staircase of her apartment complex and the knowledge Lola seems to retain from one plot-sequence to the next twists space and reorganizes time into a continuum. In the second scenario, when Lola removes the safety from the bank guard's gun, it is as if she remembered her boyfriend's advice from the first scenario. The intent is to show the continuity of time and remove the human perception of time as unidimensional.

My heart raced and my eyes were kept thoroughly entertained. Run Lola Run is a memorable cinematic experience that begs viewers to watch it over and over again.

FILM REVIEW: Paris je t'aime (2006)

A dazzling montage of 18 shorts, Paris, je’taime, uses irony and a variety of filmic techniques to explore love in the city of lights. Although each short is composed of different characters in different situations, the focus remains on Paris throughout.

The film’s organization and sheer variety not only create interest, but mesmerize. First, the overlapping voices and synchronous playing of images in the opening gives viewers a taste of what is to come. This introduction reflects the complexity of the film’s central theme – love. The film then launches each short with its location and director’s name. Like the back cover of a novel, the film closes with a similar mosaic of shots to remind viewers of love’s range.

Symbols play a significant role in several compositions, but are best integrated in the Tuileries narrative. The short uses the image of the Mona Lisa to comic effect as an unfortunate tourist is beaten for staring at a young couple across the metro platform. With only an unorthodox guidebook to translate, our mute protagonist continues his gaze as the young male fires away with threatening language. Eventually, the young male knocks the tourist to the ground and leaves the scene with his lover. The tourist, now covered in Mona Lisa postcards, draws the attention of a young boy instructed not to stare by his mother.

Fittingly, the most poignant episode rounds off the collection. In it a middle-aged American woman narrates her tour of Paris as she reflects on her life, study of French, and past lovers. Her narration, spoken in vacationer’s French, shines light on the experience of many first-time American tourists. And her substandard use of the language signals shopkeepers to break into English when she - ironically - goes out to practice French. The vignette’s closing shot shows her sitting on a park bench surrounded by lovers. What at first appears to be the look of sadness in her eyes, comes to characterize the resounding effect of love and its home in Paris.

Both entertaining and moving, Paris, je t'aime is a collective, romantic film. Its episodic narrative holds together thanks to the universal nature of its central theme. Even the most skeptical viewer can't help but fall in love with Paris, je t'aime.

FILM REVIEW: Good Bye Lenin! (2003)

“A deft balance of wistful family drama and drollery.” - Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer

Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye Lenin! challenges viewers to distinguish fact from fiction as the East German Kerner family deal with the fall of their socialist fatherland and the unification of Germany. The plot centers on Alex Kerner’s recreation of the GDR for his fragile mother, who lay in coma during the momentous events of November 1989.

Convinced that his mother may have a heart attack if she knew of the triumph of capitalism, Alex goes to great lengths to keep his mother in the dark. He pushes his sister’s boyfriend out of his mother’s old room and furnishes it to create the impression that nothing has changed. His mother settles in her old bed and ironically states, “It’s nice to know I’m not alone.” In restricting his mother's knowledge, Alex gets caught up in his imagination and isolates himself from those who care for him.

Alex’s charade soon takes on a life of its own.  By feeding his mother Dutch pickles in East German “Spreewald” jars, Alex not only unveils the fallibility of memory, but reveals his own sentimental longing for a triumphant GDR. The collapse of the GDR - symbolized by the destruction of the Berlin Wall - was world changing. However, Alex's search for East German relics is presented in such a comic way that it takes the edge off of a very serious situation. When Alex pays school children to act as young "Pioneers" to create the sounds of the past for his mother's birthday celebration, the viewer realizes the ridiculousness of his efforts.

Eventually, Alex labels truth as a “dubious concept”. In recreating an authentic East German experience in the space of his mother’s room, he also loses track of reality. He finds himself trapped between the changing world around him and his stagnant fantasy-past. Because Alex serves as the film's narrator, the viewer is also led into the confusion. Alex's fiction ends with his mother's death, but the viewer's questioning of the notion of truth remains long after.

Good Bye Lenin! brings a sense of humor to a turning point in modern world history and does so by questioning the very nature of historical truth.

FILM REVIEW: The Lives of Others (2006)

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others is a romantic story of surveillance set in 1984 East Berlin. The film’s plot is presented chronologically, but Donnersmarck’s manipulation of space and use of sound perspective jointly create cinema worth keeping your eye on.

The investigative plot centers around loyal Stasi officer Wiesler’s surveillance of a couple of artists – Sieland, a beautiful female actress and Dreyman, her GDR-faithful playwright boyfriend. Wiesler listens in on conversation and wiretaps phone calls as instructed, but he is taken in by the artists’ lives and deliberately goes against orders. His development becomes the focal point of the film's complex narrative.

Wiesler spies from a small attic, but his headphones allow him to occupy a much greater space. As viewers we get to see much of the action that Wiesler can only imagine. We watch as Dreyman and friends hit a wall with the cork of a wine bottle and Wiesler only gets an audible strike in his ear. The multiple layers of sounds form a distinction between listening and hearing that is critical to appreciating the film's slow-moving plot.  

Wiesler is eventually compelled to record what he knows to be lies in his ledger. For example, he tells his superior that Dreyman is writing a play for the 40th Anniversary of the GDR – a lie Dreyman himself invented. Wiesler's reports are taken as the factual work of a spy and are even tracked down by Dreyman to validate his life under Stasi observation. Dreyman's chosen title for his book, "Sonata for a Good Man" relates to the film's overarching question: "What is being a 'good man'?" The answer is never made clear. What Wiesler did for Dreyman was surely "good" but it is difficult to forgive his acts of cruelty as a member of the Stasi - like the 40-hour interrogation depicted in the film’s opening sequence.

What Donnersmarck has crafted with The Lives of Others is an endearing account of life in Cold War East Germany that elicits a spectrum of emotions. The film’s clever use of sound space and perceptual subjectivity are reason alone to watch it.

FILM REVIEW: The Gleaners and I (2000)

Gleaning is the practice of picking up remaining crops after a harvest. In The Gleaners and I, Agnes Varda explores the history of gleaning in France and its practice in contemporary society.  Varda – and her wrinkled off-camera hand – make several uninspiring appearances in the film as she gleans with her camera throughout France.

Varda is a gleaner and takes considerable amusement in picking out heart-shaped potatoes and “capturing” trucks on the road. When she steps into the frame, her objective is more autobiographical than anything else. Varda tries to make the film more personal by lightening the film's weighty subject matter.

On her visit to a gypsy trailer park, an ex-truck driver explains that gleaners like him are “not afraid to get [their] hands dirty" because "You can wash hands.” His insight is a commentary for Varda’s filming style. She risks losing her audience when she leaves the camera to “dance” over the gleanable harvest grounds – but her unorthodox style may amuse some.

Classifying this documentary’s form as purely categorical or rhetorical is an inadequate assessment. Varda does present contextual information, but the information she has chosen is geared towards issues beyond gleaning. Her selection of interviews with a well-off chef, a pastor, and a judge present more voices on the issue.

All in all, The Gleaners and I explores modern gleaning practices from the streets to abandoned vineyards. Varda often uses her interview subjects to argue her case in support of gleaning, and she explains in her own words that many contemporary harvesters “don’t allow gleaning because they don’t feel like being nice.” The documentary effectively enhances the audience’s awareness of present-day gleaning, but it’s quirky style hinders Varda’s aspirations of changing the stigma associated with foraging through society’s leftovers.

FILM REVIEW: The Lumière Brothers’ First Films (1996)

The collection of late nineteenth-century Lumière films strung together in this short documentary is a testament to the timelessness of exceptional composition. Piano music and agreeable commentary enhance the effectiveness of the clips, but the quality of the “written movement” speaks for itself. Shots were varied, well planned, and interesting. Even viewers who are unfamiliar with the history of the cinèmatographe cannot help but be entertained by these grainy, 50-second films.

A few of the Lumière films stood out: a home video short titled, “Baby’s tea time” and the layered views of “Lyon at work” to name a few. “Baby’s tea time” was a simple depiction of a child being fed by her parents. However, in the span of 50 seconds and 17 meters of film, it never ceased to entertain. It was really quite a joy to watch, as were the several other compositions of family life in the late 1800s. While the three-layer scene composed of women hard at work by the water, men at ease on land, and the bustling streets in the distance presents a particularly interesting view of daily life in Lyon.

Not only have these films stood the test of time, but their use of angles, light, contrast, diagonal, and perspective are reflected in today’s masterpieces. Any fan of cinema should view the work of the Lumière brothers and this collection of first films is also a great introduction to the history of cinematic entertainment.

FILM REVIEW: Born Into Brothels (2004)

Born Into Brothels is a documentary film that follows the lives of the children from Calcutta’s red light district. These children are the sons and daughters of sex workers and illegal alcohol salesmen. Director Ross Kauffman gives the viewer a glimpse into the daily lives of the children as they gleefully respond to Auntie Zana’s photography lessons. Zana Briski not only introduces the children to the wonders of still photography, but she works tirelessly to get them into boarding schools. In the end, the children decide to either stay in school or return to their families to work “in the line”.

Even the most unsympathetic of viewers can’t help but feel for these children. The series of black and white photos and fast-paced tracking shots that introduce the viewer to Calcutta’s seedy streets are made more powerful through direct interviews with the children. When one child says she must learn to “accept life as sad and painful” the viewer is quickly witness to a parent swearing and tugging at her son. This display of abject parenting is even more discomforting when contrasted with the smiling faces and displayed wonder of the children as they explore the camera.

When the children share their photography, they also express their dreams for a brighter future. When one talented child photographer is flown to the World Press Photo exhibition in Amsterdam the dream is partially realized. Unfortunately, for many of the children, escape from the red light district is not possible.  Overall, Born Into Brothels doesn’t ask much from the viewer, but the emotions it evokes are strong.

FILM REVIEW: Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

Director Wim Wenders’ documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, follows a group of provincial Cuban musicians from their recording studio in Havana to their performances in Amsterdam and at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.  Each band member - interviewed in isolation - discusses his or her life, inspiration, and love of music. Some musicians played to make a living, while others just thought that music sounded beautiful. The music in Buena Vista Music Club is absolutely fantastic, and given the option I would have skipped the film and just picked up their CD.

This is not to say that the film has no redeeming qualities. I very much liked the way the sounds of moving cars along Havana’s streets were compared to the applause of the crowded theater in Amsterdam. For a film about music, this was particularly revealing because it showed that the band was at home on any stage. The scene of Ibrahim Ferrer, the gray-haired vocalist from the Havana streets who sings of all things beautiful – romance, flowers, and women – window shopping and admiring the beauty of New York City architecture was also moving.

Save these few heartwarming scenes, I would have rather closed my eyes and just enjoyed the music.