WESTERN: alienated man goes native

Meinhard Neumann in WESTERN

In the evocative and thought-provoking German drama Western, a crew of German hardhats sets up a construction camp on a remote Bulgarian mountainside to build a water power plant.  They aren’t cultural tourists and certainly not diplomats, and they see the nearby Bulgarian village as a distraction from, even an impediment to, their project.  Of the Germans, only Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) seeks out contact with the Bulgarians.

Writer-director Valeska Grisebach lets the audience connect the dots about what’s going on. The Germans and the Bulgarians have encounters at the camp, at the riverside swimming hole and in the village.  As one would expect from any modern German filmmaker, Grisebach shines a harsh light on the German sense of superiority and entitlement.  One German even says, “They know we’re back. 70 years later, but we’re back.”  But the characters have dimension.  The blustery project boss Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) is an asshole, but even he has his own personal and job problems.

Of the Germans, only Meinhard makes Bulgarian friends.  Meinhard is a loner among his co-workers, yet he seems to be searching for something among the Bulgarians and their alien language and culture.  Meinhard is well-traveled and looks like he Has Lived a Life.  He’s not a misfit (he’s very functional), but he hasn’t found where he DOES fit.

What has caused Meinhard’s alienation?  That’s not clear, but it doesn’t need to be.  Hell, Jack Nicholson just shows up alienated in every movie from Five Easy Pieces through The Passenger, and that works out just fine.

Meinhard has no ties.  Asked if he is homesick, he queries, “what is homesick?” He thrives in the simpler culture, and this solitary man finds himself becoming social.  He develops a deep trusting friendship with a local leader, Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov).

We have the advantage of subtitles, so we know what is being said in German and in Bulgarian. The characters are not understanding about 90% of what is spoken in the other language.  The friendship between Meinhard and Adrian transcends language. The highlight of Western is a beautiful dialogue in which the two don’t understand all (or even most) of each other’s words.

Meinhard goes native.  Will it work out for him?  The Germans and the Bulgarians learn that they are competing for the same scarce resource.  The Germans are always on the verge of provoking a riot.  The insular Bulgarians are wary of strangers.

Western is not a brisk movie, but Grisebach paces it just about perfectly.  This character-driven story is a sequence of revelations, and we need Grisebach to take her time. Grisebach uses the handheld camera effectively to plunge us right into the experience of the characters, who are often trying to discover something about the other guys.

Meinhard Neumann and Syuleyman Alilov Letifov in WESTERN

So that’s what is on the screen. I was astounded to learn that Grisebach used no professional actors in Western.  She reportedly auditioned 600 working folks to get her cast.  She snagged two sublime natural talents in Meinhard Neumann and Syuleyman Alilov Letifov. Not only that, but Grisebach did not use a script.

Quoted by Stefan Dobroiu in Cineuropa, Grisebach said, “I wanted to get closer to the solitary, inflated, often melancholic male characters of the western.”  Grisebach may not have intended it, but she nailed the Going Native subgenre of Westerns, where a first world man becomes immersed into a native culture, which he ultimately embraces.  Examples include A Man Called Horse and Dances with Wolves.

I saw Western in October at Camera Cinema Club. It played the Cannes and Toronto film festivals in 2017. Western has a US distributor (The Cinema Guild), and a US theatrical release is planned for 2018.  Western is a strong film and should satisfy art house audiences.

The trailer below has no English subtitles.

Stream of the Week: MEET THE PATELS – a documentary funnier than most comedies

MEET THE PATELS
MEET THE PATELS

Meet the Patels is both a documentary and a comedy – and ultimately, a satisfying crowd-pleaser. Over several years, filmmaker Geeta Patel filmed her own brother Ravi and their parents in their quest to find a wife for Ravi. Ravi and Geeta’s parents were born in India, had a traditional arranged marriage which has resulted in decades of happiness. Their American-born kids, of course, reject the very idea of an arranged marriage. But Ravi finds the pull of his Indian heritage compelling enough to dump his redheaded girlfriend and try to find a nice Indian-American girl. His parents try to help him with unbounded and unrelenting enthusiasm.

Meet the Patels is very funny – much funnier than most fictional comedies. It’s always awkward when parents involve themselves in their child’s romantic aspirations. That’s true here, and produces some side-splitting moments. It helps that the Patel parents are very expressive, and downright hilarious. The dad is so funny that I could watch him read a telephone book for 90 minutes, and the mom is herself a force of nature.

We learn that the Patels of Gujarat have adapted an entire menu of marriage opportunities unfamiliar to mainstream American society: a matchmaking profile system called “biodata”, matrimonial fairs, “the wedding season” and more.

Meet the Patels has its share of cultural tourism and the clash of generations. But it is so damn appealing because it’s much more than that – it’s a completely authentic saga of family dynamics, dynamics that we’ve all experienced or at least observed. The family members’ mutual love for each other drives family conflict and, finally, family unity.

I saw Meet the Patels at the Camera Cinema Club last year, and it had a brief theatrical run in the Bay Area. Meet the Patels is available to stream from Netflix Instant, Amazon Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play. It’s hilarious and heart-warming, so don’t miss it.

DVD/Stream of the Week: TAKE ME TO THE RIVER – fresh, unpredictable and gripping

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER
TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

For the second week in a row, I’m featuring one of my Best Movies of 2016 – So Far. San Jose native Matt Sobel’s impressive directorial debut Take Me to the River is entirely fresh. Not one thing happens in Take Me to the River that you can predict, and it keeps the audience off-balance and completely engaged.  Here are some notes from an interview with Sobel.

A California couple and their teenage son drive to an annual family reunion in rural Nebraska. The son is gay and out, but that’s not going to be the drama here. There’s almost immediately an unexpected development that rocks the extended family. Then we settle in for over an hour of simmering unease and tense dread until something REALLY disturbing happens.

The story may be told from the teen’s point of view, but the real story turns out to be in the highly-charged relationship between his mom (Robin Weigert) and her brother Keith (Josh Hamilton). Keith, the boy’s uncle, is not a redneck rube, but very angry and very manipulative. By the end of the movie, we understand why. It’s an excellent performance by Hamilton, and whenever he’s on-screen, we fidget and wait for him to explode.

Weigert (Calamity Jane in Deadwood, Ally in Sons of Anarchy) is also excellent – her character is a Los Angeles physician who hasn’t lost the Nebraskan gift of never referring to the elephant in the room, no matter how huge. She embraces the Nebraskan imperative of avoidance with persistent geniality, covering up any unpleasantness with with niceties. My family is from rural Nebraska, which I have visited many times, so I know of what I speak.

The child actress Ursula Parker (the youngest daughter in Louie) is also especially outstanding here. Take Me to the River contains some sexual behavior by a child which is very uncomfortable for the audience, but central to the story and non-exploitative.

Take Me to the River played at Sundance in 2015, was finally released in the Bay Area in Spring 2016. Before its release, I viewed it at the Camera Cinema Club. You can stream Take Me to the River on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play or rent the DVD from Netflix.

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: notes from a San Jose filmmaker Matt Sobel

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER
TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

I attended a pre-release screening of Take Me to the River  at the Camera Cinema Club, followed by a Skype interview by Tim Sika with writer-director Matt Sobel.  Here are some nuggets from that interview.

Like me, Sobel is a San Jose guy who has often visited family in rural Nebraska.  Sobel actually likes Nebraska, and pointed out the cultural differences are more complicated than “we Californians are open minded and right”.  That being said, he acknowledged that Take Me to the River is about that Midwestern resistance to talking about anything unpleasant, which can lead to “a conspiracy of silence”.

Sobel described Take Me to the River as a “movie about suspicion and fear” and pointed out the shame that adults put on kids for innocent behavior that can lead to later tragedy.

As a filmmaker, Sobel is comfortable with the Big Action happening outside the frame so the audience must figure it out most of it and live with some ambiguity.

SPOILER ALERT:  Sobel says that, in Take Me to the River , Keith has taught his daughter the “chicken fighting” game that made his own mother think that he was a pervert.

SPOILER ALERT:  Take Me to the River contains some sexual behavior by a child which is very uncomfortable for the audience.  Sobel was careful to work with the child actress Ursula Parker to make her acting experience on the set be a non-sexual game.  This scene is central to the story and, thanks to Sobel, non-exploitative.  Ursula Parker plays the youngest daughter on Louie.

You can stream Take Me to the River on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play or rent the DVD from Netflix.

DVD/Stream of the Week: TAKE ME TO THE RIVER – fresh, unpredictable and gripping

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER
TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

My DVD/Stream for the next two weeks is one of my Best Movies of 2016 – So Far. San Jose native Matt Sobel’s impressive directorial debut Take Me to the River is entirely fresh. Not one thing happens in Take Me to the River that you can predict, and it keeps the audience off-balance and completely engaged.

A California couple and their teenage son drive to an annual family reunion in rural Nebraska. The son is gay and out, but that’s not going to be the drama here. There’s almost immediately an unexpected development that rocks the extended family. Then we settle in for over an hour of simmering unease and tense dread until something REALLY disturbing happens.

The story may be told from the teen’s point of view, but the real story turns out to be in the highly-charged relationship between his mom (Robin Weigert) and her brother Keith (Josh Hamilton). Keith, the boy’s uncle, is not a redneck rube, but very angry and very manipulative. By the end of the movie, we understand why. It’s an excellent performance by Hamilton, and whenever he’s on-screen, we fidget and wait for him to explode.

Weigert (Calamity Jane in Deadwood, Ally in Sons of Anarchy) is also excellent – her character is a Los Angeles physician who hasn’t lost the Nebraskan gift of never referring to the elephant in the room, no matter how huge. She embraces the Nebraskan imperative of avoidance with persistent geniality, covering up any unpleasantness with with niceties. My family is from rural Nebraska, which I have visited many times, so I know of what I speak.

The child actress Ursula Parker (the youngest daughter in Louie) is also especially outstanding here. Take Me to the River contains some sexual behavior by a child which is very uncomfortable for the audience, but central to the story and non-exploitative.

Take Me to the River played at Sundance in 2015, was finally released in the Bay Area in Spring 2016.  Before its release, I viewed it at the Camera Cinema Club. You can stream Take Me to the River on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play or rent the DVD from Netflix.

Stream of the Week: MEET THE PATELS – a documentary funnier than most comedies

MEET THE PATELS
MEET THE PATELS

Meet the Patels is both a documentary and a comedy – and ultimately, a satisfying crowd-pleaser. Over several years, filmmaker Geeta Patel filmed her own brother Ravi and their parents in their quest to find a wife for Ravi. Ravi and Geeta’s parents were born in India, had a traditional arranged marriage which has resulted in decades of happiness. Their American-born kids, of course, reject the very idea of an arranged marriage. But Ravi finds the pull of his Indian heritage compelling enough to dump his redheaded girlfriend and try to find a nice Indian-American girl. His parents try to help him with unbounded and unrelenting enthusiasm.

Meet the Patels is very funny – much funnier than most fictional comedies. It’s always awkward when parents involve themselves in their child’s romantic aspirations. That’s true here, and produces some side-splitting moments. It helps that the Patel parents are very expressive, and downright hilarious. The dad is so funny that I could watch him read a telephone book for 90 minutes, and the mom is herself a force of nature.

We learn that the Patels of Gujarat have adapted an entire menu of marriage opportunities unfamiliar to mainstream American society: a matchmaking profile system called “biodata”, matrimonial fairs, “the wedding season” and more.

Meet the Patels has its share of cultural tourism and the clash of generations. But it is so damn appealing because it’s much more than that – it’s a completely authentic saga of family dynamics, dynamics that we’ve all experienced or at least observed. The family members’ mutual love for each other drives family conflict and, finally, family unity.

I saw Meet the Patels at the Camera Cinema Club last year, and it had a brief theatrical run in the Bay Area. Meet the Patels is available to stream from Netflix Instant, Amazon Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play. It’s hilarious and heart-warming, so don’t miss it.

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: fresh, unpredictable and gripping

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER
TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

San Jose native Matt Sobel’s impressive directorial debut Take Me to the River is entirely fresh.  Not one thing happens in Take Me to the River that you can predict, and it keeps the audience off-balance and completely engaged.

A California couple and their teenage son drive to an annual family reunion in rural Nebraska.  The son is gay and out, but that’s not going to be the drama here.  There’s almost immediately an unexpected development that rocks the extended family. Then we settle in for over an hour of simmering unease and tense dread until something REALLY disturbing happens.

The story may be told from the teen’s point of view, but the real story turns out to be in the highly-charged relationship between his mom (Robin Weigert) and her brother Keith (Josh Hamilton).  Keith, the boy’s uncle, is not a redneck rube, but very angry and very manipulative.  By the end of the movie, we understand why.   It’s an excellent performance by Hamilton, and whenever he’s on-screen, we fidget and wait for him to explode.

Weigert (Calamity Jane in Deadwood, Ally in Sons of Anarchy) is also excellent – her character is a Los Angeles physician who hasn’t lost the Nebraskan gift of never referring to the elephant in the room, no matter how huge.  She embraces the Nebraskan imperative of avoidance with persistent geniality, covering up any unpleasantness with with niceties.  My family is from rural Nebraska, which I have visited many times, so I know of what I speak.

The child actress Ursula Parker (the youngest daughter in Louie) is also especially outstanding here.  Take Me to the River contains some sexual behavior by a child which is very uncomfortable for the audience, but central to the story and non-exploitative.

Take Me to the River played at Sundance in 2015, was finally released March 18 in New York and LA, and opens in the Bay Area tomorrow. I saw a preview at the Camera Cinema Club.

2015 at the movies: most fun at the movies

Deenis O'Keefe and Ann Sheridan in WOMAN ON THE RUN
Deenis O’Keefe and Ann Sheridan in WOMAN ON THE RUN

My favorite movie-going experiences in 2015:

  • San Francisco’s Noir City film fest, with the double feature Woman on the Run and Born to Be Bad.
  • Cinequest, especially seeing the raucously funny Wild Tales with The Wife and friends Cinequest at a packed California Theatre and seeing the exquisite and lyrical Georgian drama Corn Island on the recommendation of international film programmer Charlie Cockey.
  • Turner Classic Movies’ Summer of Darkness, program of film noir, which allowed me to discover two new noir favorites: 99 River Street and Witness to Murder.
  • Discovering the wretchedly bad and unintentionally hilarious An American Hippie in Israel on TCM – a new addition to my Bad Movie Festival.
  • The wonderful surprise of the very funny and family centric documentary Meet the Patels at a Camera Cinema Club, complete with a Skype interview with the Patel family itself.
  • A particularly strong program at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where I saw The End of the Tour, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Look of Silence, Listen to Me Marlon, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead and Very Semi-serious.
  • The Wife taking me to a luxurious screening of Spectre at the Los Gatos Theater with its black leather sofas and ottomans.
  • Happening to be in Spain during the first weekend of the Sevilla European Film Festival, and getting to catch Mustang with The Wife and my niece Maeve.
MEET THE PATELS
MEET THE PATELS

Movies to See Right Now

Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in 99 HOMES
Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in 99 HOMES

First things first – the Camera Cinema Club is kicking off its 20th season this weekend, and it’s an absolute MUST for Silicon Valley film lovers.  I explain why in these comments.   I’ve been a Club member since its 2003-04 season. If you love movies and live in Silicon Valley, you need to be in the Camera Cinema Club. Sign up here.

There’s something for everyone in theaters:

  • The Martian – an entertaining Must See space adventure – even for folks who usually don’t enjoy science fiction;
  • Sicario – a dark and paranoid crime thriller about the drug wars.
  • Meet the Patels, a heartwarming crowd-pleaser – a documentary that’s funnier than most fictional comedies. Now hard to find in theaters, it’s worth tracking down.
  • 99 Homes, a riveting psychological drama about the foreclosure crisis with searing performances by Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon.
  • Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine – Alex Gibney’s anything but reverential documentary on Steve Jobs.

My most recent Stream of the Week is the unforgettable coming of age dramedy Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It’s available streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play. You will be able to rent it on DVD from Netflix and Redbox on November 3.

This week, Turner Classic Movies brings us two fantastic comedies – two of the very best in cinema history. First, on October 19, there’s My Man Godfrey (1936) – an assembly of eccentric, oblivious, venal and utterly spoiled characters make up a rich Park Avenue family and their hangers-on during the Depression. The kooky daughter (Carole Lombard) brings home a homeless guy (William Powell) to serve as their butler. The contrast between the dignified butler and his wacky employers results in a brilliant screwball comedy that masks searing social criticism that is relevant today. The wonderful character actor Eugene Pallette (who looked and sounded like a bullfrog in a tuxedo) plays the family’s patriarch, who is keenly aware that his wife and kids are completely nuts.

Then on October 21, TCM will present the groundbreaking French comedy La Cage Aux Folles – a daring film in 1978, when few were thinking about same-sex marriage. A gay guy runs a nightclub on the Riviera – and his partner is the star drag queen. The nightclub owner’s beloved son wants him to meet the parents of his intended.  But the bride-to-be’s father is a conservative politician who practices the most severe and judgmental version of Roman Catholicism, so they’re going to have to conceal aspects of their lifestyle. Mad cap comedy ensues, and La Cage proves that broad farce can be heartfelt. Michel Serrault is unforgettable as Albin/Zaza – one of the all-time great comic performances. (La Cage was tepidly remade in 1996 as The Birdcage with Robin Williams, but you want to see the French original.)

Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES
Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES

CAMERA CINEMA CLUB – a MUST for Silicon Valley Film Lovers

Jennifer lawrence breaks through in WINTER'S BONE, featured at the Camera Cinema Club
Jennifer Lawrence breaks through in WINTER’S BONE, featured at the Camera Cinema Club

An absolute MUST for Silicon Valley film lovers, the Camera Cinema Club is kicking off its 20th season this weekend.

It’s your chance to see ten as yet unreleased films for $160.   There’s usually an post-screening Q&A with a filmmaker, either live or via Skype. It’s like seeing ten movies at a film festival – except it’s a manageable one per month instead of all at once.

The movies range from indie gems to Oscar Bait and are selected by Tim Sika, President of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. Sika is the host and producer of the movie magazine radio show Celluloid Dreams and also reviews movies for KGO radio.

Here’s how it works.  The club meets monthly on Sundays – at Campbell’s Camera 7 in the morning and at downtown San Jose’s Camera 12 in the afternoon.  After a movie trivia contest (winners get movie schwag), the house lights go off and a movie appears on the screen.  Until this moment, we don’t know which movie it is.  The mystery is part of the club’s appeal, and, as a result, I’ve seen some wonderful films that I otherwise never would have chosen to see.  Afterward, Sika leads a discussion about the film – almost always with at least one of the filmmakers.

The Club’s 20th season begins on October 18th and you can sign up at here. It’s 10 events for $160 – a film festival on the installment plan. You can also buy a four-movie punch card or pay for an individual screening. The Camera Cinema Club is one of my Best Movie Deals in Silicon Valley.

I first saw my pick for the top movie of 2010, Winter’s Bone (four Oscar nominations, including for Jennifer Lawrence’s breakthrough performance), at the Camera Cinema Club.  Here are some other Cinema Club films that have made my Best of the Year lists:

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I’ll See You in My Dreams, Two Days One Night, Alive Inside, Bernie, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Rabbit Hole, Project Nim, The Messenger, The Tillman Story, Wendy and Lucy, Goodbye Solo, Taxi to the Dark Side, Shotgun Stories, American Splendor, Maria Full of Grace.

As you can see, Tim Sika has exquisite taste.  Thanks to him, Camera Cinema Club members get to see (before their release):

  • Crowd pleasers like Meet the Patels, Cloudburst, Once and Mad Hot Ballroom;
  • Challenging cinematic ground breakers like Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Gus Van Zant’s Last Days;
  • Unknown gems like The Grief of Others and In the Family by the as yet undiscovered genius Patrick Wang, the hitherto forgotten neo-noir The Woman Chaser and the delightful Bay Area indie Colma: The Musical.

And I have to admit that, otherwise, I never would have seen The September Issue (I have no interest in the fashion world) or The Tillman Story (I thought I already knew the whole story).  Both were rewarding movie experiences.

Cinema Club members also get invited to special previews and events.  Recently, I attended a 99 Homes preview with star Andrew Garfield. Another highlight for me was a preview of Killer Joe with director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist).  In a rare revival showing, the Cinema Club also screened an almost lost film, the 1981 They All Laughed – and I found myself sitting next to director Peter Bogdanovich!

I’ve been a Club member since its 2003-04 season.   If you love movies and live in Silicon Valley, you need to be in the Camera Cinema Club. Sign up here.

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL screened pre-release at the CAMERA CINEMA CLUB
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL screened pre-release at the CAMERA CINEMA CLUB