Archive for March 2016

Sold

March 27, 2016

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The India-set melodrama Sold, which inveighs against the cruelty of trafficking young girls for sex slavery, was completed in 2012, when its charismatic star, Niyar Saikia, had just turned thirteen. (It has been knocking around festivals since 2014 and is set for a slow platform release in America starting in April.) I mention the lead actress’ age during filming because in several scenes her character Lakshmi is raped, and even though it’s not shown explicitly — the movie is rated PG-13 and so the sexual violence is suggested rather obliquely, such as being reflected onto the metal of a door padlock — we still sit with the knowledge that Saikia had to simulate these scenes, even one in which she must fake sex with an American rescuer (David Arquette) so as not to raise suspicion. It’s possible that Saikia, like the similarly uncomfortably underage Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, had a body double and that she was well-protected physically and psychologically, but we know what’s supposed to be happening in the scene, and wondering about the on-set circumstances of its simulation just takes us out of the movie.

There were ways to accomplish this more tastefully, or, conversely, to throw away the chance of a PG-13 rating and jump right into the lost-innocence heart of darkness, as in Pixote or Kids. But director/cowriter Jeffrey Brown, adapting a novel by Patricia McCormick, has made his choice: the movie will pluck at liberal heartstrings, like Slumdog Millionaire or The Kite Runner, two other films that turn misery into inspirational tales designed to make us leave the theater, visit the website, and donate to charities such as executive producer Emma Thompson’s foundation to help survivors of sex trafficking. A side effect is that it inflames American indignation about the terrible things done to women and girls in countries like India — you know, those swarthy, godless people with no respect for human life — when in fact, according to one figure, there are at least 100,000 child victims of sex trafficking in the United States. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get angry about atrocities that happen elsewhere. I’m saying you shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t also happen here.

How is Sold as a movie? Mostly dreary, because once Lakshmi is separated from her parents in Nepal and delivered to a brothel in India, we’re pretty much confined to her quarters — a locked cell and then a tiny excuse for a bedroom — along with her. On occasion we go outside, accompanying a little boy Lakshmi befriends as he plays with a ball or a kite. But this is very much the slummy, ugly side of India — filmed largely in a red-light district, I understand — in contrast to the idyllic though poor mountain climate of Nepal. I would’ve welcomed a few side trips back to Lakshmi’s home, because that great and powerful actress Seema Biswas, from the ferocious Bandit Queen, is wasted in a nothing role as Lakshmi’s mother.

One aspect of Sold does make me happy: the Americans who try to intervene, including Gillian Anderson in a glorified cameo as a photographer, don’t save Lakshmi — she saves herself. The Americans do find out where she’s being kept, they get the local police to stage a raid on the brothel, and Arquette’s character slips her a business card with the location of a shelter, but ultimately Lakshmi’s fate is in her own hands. This is good (as is the planted detail of chili powder, which is used to torture the girls, and which Lakshmi uses as a means of defense). What isn’t good is how simplistically Dickensian movies like this and Slumdog are.

The slimy men who frequent the brothel almost all have facial hair, the better to twirl their mustaches, and the women who capture and enslave the girls aren’t much better. Sushmita Mukherjee is all set to give a large-scale performance as the brothel’s matron, but the script consistently lets her down, robs her character of any complexity. Hector Babenco, who made an indelible icon of annihilated femaleness out of a cruel prostitute in his Pixote, would have known how to help Mukherjee get to where she was headed. And what’s the deal with everyone — including the people in that impoverished Nepal village — speaking English? How convenient for the American would-be rescuers and their counterparts in the audience.

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Naciye

March 20, 2016

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You don’t truly appreciate a standard film technique used competently until you’ve seen it used ineptly. Take flashbacks. Used well, they can change up or unify a movie’s tone as well as strengthening theme and character, and they do this without confusing the audience. And then you have a film like Lutfu Emre Cicek’s Naciye (soon to get a limited release after some festival activity last fall), which almost seems to be a lesson in how to use flashbacks to baffle the viewer and for no other purpose. This gory Turkish horror film, whose only lively bits are clumsily- realized murders, also pads itself out egregiously in the telling of a fairly simple tale: A woman, the eponymous Naciye (Derya Alabora), has been illegally living in a house for years, and when anyone threatens to dislodge her, she goes berserk.

Leaving aside the perhaps overly literal question of how Naciye’s squatting and killing have gone unnoticed by the cops for decades, we follow a young couple — a pregnant woman and her boyfriend — as they come to live in the home, which they don’t realize is occupied. This couple, and especially the woman, are obnoxiously miserable, so we don’t care very much whether they live or die. The suspicion arises that the script makes the woman pregnant so we’ll care about the fetus, at least. The woman walks around the house endlessly, noticing details that indicate someone else has lived there recently and may still live there. Meanwhile, Naciye lurks in the home, sometimes aided by a mysterious man, or is it two men?

The flashbacks, dumped into the narrative with no particular motivating incident, are supposed to clarify things but end up muddying them considerably. We see Naciye as a girl whose mom, I guess, cleaned the house for a man who, I guess, routinely raped her. This trauma led to Naciye staying in the home forever, and there are other familial twists. None of which have much relevance to the main narrative. About the only point of interest is the movie’s critique of its culture’s misogyny, a concern that links it to a far better Turkish film, the crude but harsh and elemental Yol. The pregnant woman’s boyfriend seems to try on sexist attitudes for size, maybe because he remembers his father or even grandfather saying the same things. The movie isn’t sexist: we see here, in a horror/thriller context, how hatred of women blooms out of fear of them. The men here have no power — the women carry life (literally) or death.

But that makes Naciye sound so much more interesting than it is. Slow and repetitive, with the flashbacks done in the same bland, unemphatic style as the contemporary scenes, the movie feeds a few people to Naciye to stab full of holes, then to bury (is this place so secluded that nobody notices corpses being rolled into graves in broad daylight?). The film runs only 78 minutes but feels twice as long, and seems to have just enough story for a film half as long. Lutfu Emre Cicek does have an eye; the widescreen compositions speak elegantly of isolation. But the story he’s telling with those images overstays its welcome and outlives our patience. It’s yet another calling-card film like It Follows, not born of the genuine fear and obsession that distinguish real horror, but out of a desire to make something “cool” inspired by one’s betters.

The Prophet

March 6, 2016

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Does everything need to be a movie? Even the staunchest film buff might wonder from time to time. Some material — a book, a comic, a Broadway show, a concept album — is perfectly content to stay what it is and not get amped up and dumbed down to placate the multiplexers. The enduringly popular The Prophet, a book of spiritual prose poetry by the Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran, might seem to be that kind of material. Like the Ancient Mariner, its titular protagonist stops and talks to random listeners; unlike the Mariner, the Prophet, Al-Mustafa, relates no compelling narrative, but a series of ruminations on life, death, love, work, and so on. Movies were made out of such comparable ’60s dorm-room faves as Jonathan Livingston Seagull and The Little Prince, but Gibran’s work has for almost a century seemed happy enough to exist as a pocket-size book.

Now there is an animated film “inspired by” The Prophet, and its driving force is co-producer Salma Hayek, who has Lebanese roots on her father’s side. The film is a personal project for Hayek, who also voices a character in the movie, a character that, like most others onscreen, does not actually figure in Gibran’s book. No matter. Hayek has clearly undertaken this project because she wants it to reach children in some way, even in somewhat watered-down and very abbreviated form (the script often just paraphrases Gibran, and only eight of the book’s 26 poems are tackled). And even the least generous viewer might have to admit, it could have been a lot worse. One shudders at the thought of a Disneyfied Al-Mustafa (shortened here to Mustafa) belting show tunes (“Your Children Are Not Your Children,” performed by Adam Levine ft. Lorde).

We sort of get a Disney version anyway, because writer-director Roger Allers, who helmed The Lion King, devises a framing sequence that seems a bit Aladdin-y, complete with young heroine Almitra running all around a street bazaar in a typical boisterous Disney opener to hook the kids. Once the movie settles down, it improves. Almitra, who hasn’t spoken since her father died, accompanies her mother Kamila (Hayek) to a remote spot where the poet Mustafa (Liam Neeson) is under house arrest for seditious poetry. Kamila goes there every day to clean house, but then Mustafa is mysteriously set free, and on his way to the ship that will carry him home he meets various people whom he favors with his insights on life, death, love, work, and so on.

It’s here that The Prophet becomes a sampler of work from animators the world over, from Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues) to Bill Plympton (The Tune) to Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat) to Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells). A lot of this stuff is elegant, imaginative, first-rate (although my issue with Plympton as a guy who does animation to show off how clever he is — a sort of Alejandro Gonzalez IƱarritu of cartoons — persists here). The visualizations of Gibran’s concepts are sometimes so arresting that I, for one, lost track of what narrator Neeson was saying — not an effect Gibran would have wanted.

Viewed as part of the continuum of animation history, a work whose ancestors include Fantasia and, structurally, Heavy Metal (in which a girl is told stories by a glowing green ball), The Prophet works much better. The “in” to the more abstract and experimental sections is the bland Allers-designed frame, with such uninspired touches as Mustafa’s affable guard Halim (John Krasinski) harboring a crush on Kamila. I know it’s there to ease Disney/Pixar-reared kids into the good stuff, but every time an interlude finished and we trudged back into dull Allers territory, I could feel myself deflate and my attention slacken. The ideal presentation of Gibran’s work is still to be found on bookshelves worldwide (or perhaps in the 1974 album, read by Richard Harris), but as a calling card for eight indie animators, it gets the job done.