tfi_englishsurgeon_600The English Surgeon

(willamette week) [GREAT BRITAIN] With a John Cleese patois and unchecked altruism, London-based neurosurgeon Henry Marsh regularly lends his services to a beleaguered Kiev clinic under director Geoffrey Smith’s watchful eye. This tight narrative documentary uses as its story arc a young Ukrainian farmer suffering from epilepsy, but packed between introductions and the young man’s fate is an impressive chronicle of Marsh’s efforts in a primitive medical system riddled with corruption. There’s his ongoing ethical dilemma to boot: What initially comes across as Marsh’s humane exploration of the God complex is, in fact, the aging and unsettled doc talking himself through an untenable situation. And who better to compose the score to this listless Soviet landscape than Nick Cave?


[BOSNIA] Director Aida Begic has conceived a modern-day postwar village, and it’s a sun-dappled place where poverty is so new it’s a shock to watch this middle-class cross section of recent widows and orphans (brutalized by war in the Balkans) subsist off the land. One of their own offers to buy them out on behalf of a Serbian development firm, and the tribe is forced to bow to formula (a broken-down car and rainstorm revelations) and an easy payoff (the strong bonds of women and family). A shame, because Snow—hamfisted title notwithstanding—is an otherwise compelling character study of a world where everyone you meet is a victim of civil genocide.

christo_jeanne_claudeThe Gates

[UNITED STATES] Christo haters would do well to watch this chronicle of his 25-year effort to install 7,500 orange curtained gates throughout Central Park. In February 2005, the Reichstag-wrapping, umbrella-flinging artist, along with his wife and co-collaborator, Jeane-Claude, spent over $20 million out of pocket in his latest contribution to the field of transitory art. While the film jumps from 1979 to the early aughts (when a more receptive Mayor Bloomberg green-lighted the project), the logistics of the installation and the man-on-the-street-style art criticism are surprisingly gratifying to watch. The public’s positive reaction is slightly skewed on the part of the filmmakers, but they provide as much explanation as you could possibly want for a project which both artists agree has no deeper meaning or altruistic motivation, and was really just something they had to get out of their system.

DuchessofLangeaisThe Duchess of Langeais

[FRANCE] Honoré de Balzac may have been known for his keen observation of Parisian society’s ills, but in this adaptation of his novel, the lady in the tower just comes across as a playa. The Duchess of Langeais (Jeanne Balibar) has an absent husband and a sadistic interest in keeping Napoleonic war hero Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu) in her life but out of her bed. What begins as a battle of the sexes turns into an overwrought argument about propriety, and the occasional kidnapping and fleeing to the nunnery isn’t enough to keep things compelling. Balibar plays a complicated ice queen, but Depardieu (who is apparently adhering to France’s one-Depardieu-per-film proviso) has only two speeds: brooding and seething. Still, the duo makes the best of two hours of reversals and plain old bad timing.

f30bcbbDunya Desie

[THE NETHERLANDS] Newest entry to the classic genre of BFFs taking a road trip that just happens to coincide with identity crises: A spinoff of a popular Dutch TV series about an alliterative teenage duo. Dunya is the understated stunner with the ethnic family, Desie her free-spirited, fast better half. When Dunya travels to Morocco to meet her would-be fiancé, Desie opts out of an abortion to join her for a holiday of personal significance. Although it adds nothing to the genre, consider it a highbrow remake of the 2002 Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads.


[GREAT BRITAIN] Director Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated is a retelling of the classic How Stella Got Her Groove Back—had Stella been British, traveled to a friend’s Italian villa instead of Jamaica and, rather than nailing Taye Diggs, had endured intense, unconsummated sexual tension with her young paramour. Best described as a slow, quiet study in character,Unrelated focuses on Anna (Kathryn Worth) and her choices: hanging out with boring marrieds or having a helluva time with the bright young things she finds herself far too old to bed. All the while, Anna contemplates a failing marriage and her quickly sailing baby boat. A strong performance by Worth completes the story arc in a way that is ultimately realistic but just not as satisfying as the May-November shagfest the film is constantly building toward.

movie-monastery-vig-and-nun-still-mask9The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun

[DENMARK] Jørgen Laursen Vig once made a keen real-estate investment that landed him a small castle in the Danish countryside. In his 80s, solitary and studious, Vig hobbles through this documentary, making repairs to his property and preparing for the arrival of a small group of Russian Orthodox nuns. Without the benefit of voice-over, the endearing Vig toils the land and rips out floorboards while reflecting on the fact he’s never been in love and doesn’t entirely like people, although establishing a monastery in his home has always seemed inevitable. The domineering Russian nun Sister Ambrosija proves to be a combative, late-in-life companion to Vig as they bicker eloquently in English, their lingua franca, in director Pernille Rose Grønkjær’s solid and evenly crafted study of isolation and hospitality.

lemon-tree-etz-limon-1Lemon Tree

[ISRAEL] As metaphors go, this one couldn’t be more heavy-handed: The new Israeli defense minister moves next door to a lemon grove on the West Bank border and deems it a security risk, threatening the livelihood of a long-suffering Palestinian widow. She refuses a token reparation, and instead pushes her case to the Supreme Court. But within these parameters is a lush, detailed study that is arguably more about feminism than it is a free state: On both sides of the fence, the women (widow or defense minister’s wife) are cowed into some form of surrender—political or social. Thankfully, director Eran Riklis allows them to stop short of martyrdom, instead creating story out of allegory and even-handedly acknowledging a seemingly irreparable situation.

the-garden-film-review1-300x200The Garden

[UNITED STATES] South Central L.A.: bucolic? Panning over America’s largest city garden, director Scott Hamilton Kennedy makes an easy connection between this post-riot Eden and urban revitalization. When city subsistence farmers (mainly immigrants and the odd ex-Black Panther) are given their eviction notice after 11 years, they discover a shady closed-door land deal between the city and a private investor. But in Kennedy’s ardor, he pushes the Zapata comparisons a little too hard, committing one of the worst sins in documentary filmmaking: blatant manipulation. With issues of gentrification and immigration swirling in most major U.S. cities, he shouldn’t have felt the need even to nudge.

originally published Feb 20 2008

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