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From The Film Review Archives: Wah-Wah in The Bush

directed by Richard E. Grant
Ralph Compton, Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, Zachary Fox, Nicholas Hoult
[Reviewed May 5, 2006]
This semi-autobiographical tale will either remind you of your dysfunctional family or make you thank heaven you didn't have one, but either way the exceptional performances will vie for your heart share.

The long-time actor/first-time director begins his trip down memory lane with tweener Ralph Compton watching his mother bonk his father's best friend. From there the terrain tilts and slopes as mom flees and dad strikes up a volatile affair with the bottle. Set against Swaziland of the late 60s and early 70s, Ralph's happy/sad coming-of-age parallels the last throes of British rule.

What's the worst thing that happened to you as a kid? If you're Richard E. Grant it's a toss-up. Long before launching his name in Withnail and I some two decades ago, the British actor was rehearsing the human comedy in a boyhood wracked with reversals, many of which came from his father's drinking.
By now the subgenre of the alcohol-soaked descent is well known to moviegoers-a loved one, often a parent, heaps domestic abuse and Oscar-worthy emoting ensues. With his affecting visual memoir, Grant puts us through the familiar paces but also takes pains to leaven the despair.
As Wah-Wah begins, birds are circling over the Swazi brush in the shadowy light before dusk. Be worried, the score tells us, the sun is setting on Empire and independence remains an unknown. A car wends its way through the brush toward the scene of a trauma that will shatter 11-year old Ralph Compton (Fox)'s innocence and set in motion his struggle for sovereignty. Powerless from his backseat perch, Ralph is literally rocked by his mother, Lauren (Richardson)'s adultery and subsequent walkout on him and his father Harry Compton (Byrne), the colony's Minister of Education. As if these twin blows aren't enough for the introductory scenes, he's shipped off to boarding school and out of his heartsick dad's loving care.
Understandable, then, that Ralph somatizes stress in a silent roar, a tic that absorbs the shock of forces he can't control. This being 1969, he takes refuge in a world of puppets rather than pop an SSR. Will this vulnerable youth retreat into fantasy to have his own say or find his voice building intimacy?
It's a question that follows 14-year old Ralph (now played by Hoult) upon his return to find his father both married and an alcoholic. Former air hostess Ruby (Emily Watson), the new mother, gets an ambivalent hello, but soon wins Ralph over with her rebellious, egalitarian spirit. She's among the few straight-talkers in this overripe British outpost, where the "snooty baby talk" sounds like so much Wah-Wah to her American ears.
Leave it to a thespian to draw outstanding performances from his cast. Watson's mimicry of the Colonial upper crust is both on the money and good for some laughs, and her accent is nasally perfect. (Grant's wife was her vocal coach.) Given that Ralph is in virtually every scene, it's not hard to see why Grant held out for Hoult, who's had quite a spurt since About a Boy and The Weather Man and who nails the boy's psychic intensity.
Stepmother and son will further bond in mutual protection against Harry's off-character boozy rages. The movie's power, which smacks you in the gut, derives from this take on emotional violence as only half of the aggressor's truth and not to be confused with the loving soul allowed out by day when the demon possessor sleeps. Why on earth, you might wonder, wouldn't Ruby immediately bolt? — until Byrne reminds us in a career-crowing performance that Harry's as charming and decent in his sobriety as he is wrenching and ruinous on a bender.
Wah-Wah's boldest suggestion is that Ralph's emergence into manhood was accelerated on a night when his sloshed father pulled a gun on him. Harry will again bring Ralph closer to his essential self in a climactic — and historically accurate — confession later on. Just as in real life, Grant's alter-ego reacts to plot points of his father's doing. But is this any way to treat a movie protagonist?

As the narrative advances Ralph's coming-of-age cedes important ground to the unrequited love story of Harry Compton. What the audience starts to surmise is that such digressions are the scenic route through a personal past and not the express lane to dramatic story. Art so imitates life in Wah-Wah it sometimes verges on role-play.
The "write what you know" approach is more easily pulled off in the film's comedic scenes. Grant brings a wry sense of humor to the local expatriate fauna he knows all too well, and invites us to snicker at these incestuous hypocrites milling about in dapper white. But we also get a glimpse of their warmer colors as they mourn the impending loss of their African home and stage a production of Camelot for the new Swazi nation.

Celia Imri stretches the snobbery of High Commissioner's wife more than you'd credibly accept-research notwithstanding-but even she tries humility at Union Jack's end. An earthier, more huggable character is Gwen Traherne, the dumped spouse of Lauren's lover whom Julie Waters plays with big-hearted relish.
Miranda Richardson's Lauren, on the other hand, earns hardly a trace of our sympathy. Perhaps if we knew her better we'd applaud her for following her heart. Instead, her coming and going plays like pure selfishness, a charge which gathers weight even when the evidence isn't there.
Fans of nostalgia will appreciate the balance Grant struck between succulent social pokes and knock down, drag out dread. Greater cynics may deem the merry-making too obvious a thank you for feeling his pain. But what the hell?--there's nothing like a little happy kitsch to loosen the sphincter.
A quick note on tech credits before we go "toodle pip": Bravo to Gary Williamson and Sheena Napier, whose production design and costumes capture the era with lively panache. Patrick Doyle's score aptly charts the film's topography of moods, and Pierre Aïm's cinematography does a dazzling job of contrasting the inbred culture with the natural terrain. Whisky clear editing by Isabelle Dedieu keeps us trained on Ralph's point of view despite the script's shifting focus.
All in all, did Grant make you well up? If you're open to what goes on behind many closed doors, probably so. And that doesn't happen with every movie.

You'll laugh, you'll wah in this sentimental journey through Richard E. Grant's Swaziland boyhood as the son of a raging alcoholic and the narcissist who set him off.

From The Film Review Archives: The Bubble Bursts

directed by Steven Soderbergh
starring Debbie Doebereiner, Dustin James Ashley, Kyle Smith, Misty Dawn Wilkins
[Reviewed January 2005]
Bursting open in 32 theaters this weekend, the inaugural film of Soderbergh's six-project deal with Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban's 2929 Entertainment will play to empty seats. It will also appear on HDNet Movies twice on opening night, January 27, 2005 at 9:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. ET.

In a move that breaks ground and possibly the theatrical bank, the HDNet Films-produced title (also a 2929 property) will be available on DVD on January 31st, 2006, courtesy of 2929's Magnolia Home Video. And it aired twice on 2929's Hi-Def cable channel, HDNet Movies this Friday.

Bubble isn't Soderbergh's first foray into cutting edge digital filmmaking. Released in 2002, full-of-it Full Frontal was. (His earlier film, Schizopolis, gave hints). Still, there's a swoon to be had in watching an A-list director trapeze from big name projects like Ocean's Eleven, Erin Brockovich and even Traffic to low-wire acts with a non-professional cast.

The movie begins with a shovel scooping earth by a cemetery. One murder and 90 minutes later, shoveling bookends the story. In his 15th film and second collaboration with screenwriter Coleman Hough, director Soderbergh suggests how, ashes to ashes, some of us fall down. Whodunnit isn't the issue. It's rather the whatdunnit that fills the frames.

As the title implicates, the real culprit here may be the insulation that small town modernity imposes on its inhabitants until they implode. For Martha (Doebereiner), a plus-size Midwesterner whose idea of "fun" and a nice way to "spend time" with someone is moonlight sewing as dad vegetates in front of the TV, the popping point came without her even knowing it.

Stuck with diminishing prospects of ever marrying, having a family or leaving the doll factory where she's spent years plasticizing humanity, our brave anti-heroine catches pleasure where catch can—in calories, in small kindnesses toward coworker Kyle (Ashley) and in a subhuman regime of denial.

Martha may complain she's "ready to get out of this area" since "there's nothing here" and "you can't make money in this joint," but her pact with mediocrity seems sealed. We don't exactly expect she'll be having sex in the city by Act III. Into this depressing breach steps a stranger...

Enter Rose (Wilkins), a rose by no other name. A single mom and a babe, this maven of airbrushing scatters Kyle's fog at first site. As Rose wedges in on Martha and Kyle's friendship, her sly manipulations flag the third wheel's concern. Rose may share Martha's struggles and disappointments, but something in the way the younger woman presses her advantage and dismisses her daughter's father as "just another bad decision" alerts Martha that this woman is angry, entitled and out to get what she wants at anyone's expense.

In fact, we see Rose do some not very nice things. She steals Kyle's savings, her motive for going out with him; she throws her date some weed as a sop, which she may have stolen from her enraged ex (Smith) along with his money. And she humiliates Martha, first in not telling her that Kyle was her date–the reason for having Martha babysit—next in making her feel invisible and ultimately in making a cruel mockery of Martha's attempt to establish connection.

When Rose is found strangled in her apartment the next morning, an investigation gets underway. To Soderbergh's great credit, we grill each of the suspects and replay their potential motives even after we're assured that Martha must be the killer.

Peter Andrews' digital camera lets us in on the reactions of each character, and jiggles our expectations of whom to stare down. Though occasionally off, the first-time actors mostly play American Gothic in a refreshingly understated and believable key. The you-are-there pacing further adds to the verité feel.

In what may be the most subtle climax in the annals of murder mystery, Martha simply has a flashback of her deed. Her membrane thus lifted, she's now free to reflect on her conscious and unconscious choices and ply her loneliness for answers. Jail bars or the isolation of self, choose your bubble.

Soldini's Come Undone lets Rohrwacher and Favino raise our temperatures...

Because my first experience with truly sensual film came via Italy (La Dolce Vita, Rocco and His Brothers, L'Avventura), I find it odd that when Italian filmmakers these days place sexuality front and center, the results prove somehow less than fulfilling. Last year's The Man Who Loves (shown at the FSLC's Open Roads) was one example, and now we have Come Undone (Cosa voglio di più), the new movie from one of Italy's more popular (and currently exportable) filmmakers, Silvio Soldini, who earlier gave us Bread and TulipsAgata and the Storm and Days and Clouds.

What is the reason for this?  Does sexuality/sensuality, when shown as a part -- even a very large part -- of an entire life work better than when it becomes nearly the only subject at hand? Perhaps. (TM wasn't all that fond of the initially-hot but finally-tiresome 9-1/2 Weeks, either. In any case, Signore Soldini has made a much better film than did Adrian Lyne.

First of all, he captures quite well the easy-going, childless marriage of Anna and Alessio -- Alba Rohrwacher and Giussepe Battiston -- and the not-going-so-well marriage of Domenico and Miriam (Pierfrancesco Favino and Teresa Saponangelo). Money problems plague the latter, though it is the former's Anna who take the first step in initiating the affair with Domenico. As co-writer and director, Soldini's details are often on the mark -- particularly those of the tell-tale swimming attire that figures into things, and how aware one's co-workers can be when something's amiss.

Once the affair heats up, however, it can only go forward or end, and so midway the movie begins to vamp a bit to kill time. (Running two hours, as it does, there's a little too much time to effectively kill.) Back and forth we go: She's out, and then back in; he's out and then back in. For younger viewers who have not endured this sort of thing countless times already, there may indeed be some surprise and a bigger payoff. Others of us will have to content ourselves with the very good performances of actors who are always a pleasure to view.

Salt of This Sea: Ownership /Occupation in Israel/Palestine

Salt of This Sea
directed by Annemarie Jacir
starring Suheir Hammad, Saleh Bakri

You couldn't ask for a more timely or explosive subject for a film than that chosen by writer/director Annemarie Jacir, whose first full-length film is Salt of This Sea -- which is also said to the the first film from Palestine by a female director. This "Salt" is certainly more flavorful and timely than another that opened a couple of weeks back, and the initials of the person most responsible for the success of each film -- coincidence? -- are AJ.

Using a documentary style to carry her narrative, Ms Jacir, shown below, tracks the "adventures" of a Brooklyn-born young woman, Soraya (played by a great beauty named Suheir Hammad), of Palestinian lineage who comes to this native-land-of-her-soul in order to visit her late grandparents' home in Jaffa and access her grandfather's bank account.

Things do not move ahead so easily.  From her protracted airport visit and interview/search by authorities (can anyone, especially Soraya, be surprised by this?) to her experience with the bank, she and her quest are blindsided left and right.  Along the way she meets a young local, Emad, played by Saleh Bakri (of The Band's Visit, and another beauty: This pair alone makes watching the movie very easy on the eyes).

Emad works as a restaurant waiter while waiting for his visa to be granted to study in Canada, where he has a scholarship pending. The glimpses we get of Palestine life, while not horrendous, are certainly not pleasant. Employment (and the money to pay employees) seems unusually "iffy," and that visa, it turns out, has been rejected a number of times already (golly: do Israelis not want their Palestinian brethren to succeed in life?).

So Soraya, Emad and his best friend Marwan (a clownish but enjoyable Riyad Ideis) hatch a plan, and here the movie either hops the track entirely, depending on your tolerance for genre-jumping, or at the very least becomes pretty problematic.  I won't reveal all that transpires (mini-spoilers ahead) but will say that the photo below reveals a part of that plan -- which then takes our threesome deep into Israeli territory, where the men wear yarmulkes and Soraya's citizenship and use of English is a major help in getting by.

All this is not very believable, yet it enables Jacir to explore the themes that really matter to her (and should to the rest of us): ownership, occupation and the right to travel freely between points and countries. If the filmmaker does not do this nearly fully enough (her scenario is simply too creaky), she at least forces us to face up to some troubling contradictions in so-called western (and one eastern) "democracies."

When the threesome finally arrives at the home of the late grand-
parents, it is greeted by perhaps the most welcoming Israeli in memory -- who tells the group to stay as long as it wants. Yet so obsessed is Soraya by what was taken from her family back in the 1940s that she cannot negotiate even a minor peace. This turn of events is actually all too believable; it brings the woman's character and psychological problems to the fore, where they now remain through the film's conclusion.

It's not so easy to put the past behind you when that past has been taken from you due to nothing for which you or your ancestors were personally responsible. But this also brings up the principle used in situations from wartime conquering to long-term squatting: possession equals ownership.

You can't go home again as it turns out.  We knew that, but we may not have seen it expressed from quite this interesting/exotic a view.  Soraya and Emad become briefly like some new Adam and Eve, but nothing here  can last for these Palestinians. The film is propaganda, of course. Yet despite the clumsy manner in which some of the story is handled, the performances are strong and the ideas and feelings generated even more so.

From one angle you can view the film as the story of a disturbed woman looking for her roots while wreaking havoc on those around her. On the other hand, you could just as easily get away with giving this movie a title oft-used but still pertinent: a Stolen Life. 
Or maybe as a kind of suicide road-trip, minus the bombs.

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