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Five Favorites, Two Docs and Two Duds
by Marinell Haegelin

The one constant these five narratives and two documentaries share is a strong story line that reels us in, and maintains our attention until end credits roll. There is sureness in the direction and cinematography, which is the backbone of good movies. Additionally, strong production values support each film’s tone and pace. Three of my choices are debut feature films: Croatian director Tomislav Mrsic’s Cowboys, The Sunfish from Danish director Søren Balle, and Arabic-Israeli writer/director Suha Arraf’s Villa Touma.

A Nordic fishery, and an industrial wasteland are the respective settings for The Sunfish and Cowboys; both are about fresh starts. Attempting to stimulate the town’s squalid atmosphere, the mayor gets former school buddy cum successful theatre director Sasha to stage a play. Setting this lark in motion is the meager casting call: five motley—plus a gal—theatrically ignorant characters, who are somewhat familiar with Westerns. Sasha’s patience knows practically no limits goading, educating, humoring, and cajoling the group. Who fidgets, squabbles, and is sometimes portentous or even brawl learning their lines. And about true friendship. Hilarious, sobering, and always fetching, Cowboys is already slated for an English language remake. In The Sunfish Kesse, a third generation fisherman with one crewmember is barely keeping his head above water. Survival forces strange bedfellows. Begrudgingly, for the extra catch he’ll receive, Kesse takes a marine biologist onboard. Gerd introduces him to the sunfish, sprinkling a lil’ magic-dust in his life. Kesse ascertains life’s mysterious detours help when confronting tough, yet affirming choices in this character-driven drama.

Villa Touma combines religious and political prejudices, and misconceptions that Arraf admirably depicts. Three sisters, as fusty and outdated as their Ramallah villa, are flummoxed when a young, orphaned niece shows up interrupting their ingrained routine. Irrefutably, Badia must marry someone of their station: Christian, Palestinian, but with money. Stringent lessons begin: etiquette, language, and music. Each is trapped in personal regrets; only one sister’s able to interconnect with her niece—an apt pupil, but young, unfettered, and full of verve. Nonetheless, its Badia’s very genuineness that shifts household parameters, and the dining tables seating arrangement.

Chinese director Zhang Meng (The Piano in a Factory FFHH 2011) returns with an equally memorable film, Uncle Victory. Notorious Chen Shengli’s 10-years prison stint had an affect. Reformed and determined to establish a normal life, he takes over a kindergarten. Through flashback sequences—film coloration differences ground us in the present—we meet pesky former competitors keen on settling old scores. Conversely, Chen’s determined to make amends. Cajoling a fun-loving nurse, plucky Uncle Chen’s regime mystifyingly appeals to kiddies. Ultimately, he gains what he holds most dear. Capitalizing on strong personalities, sententiousness, and quirky setups elicits humor and empathy. Life in a Fishbowl poignantly shows how personal choices and tragedies can shape ones destiny. Reykjavik isn’t so huge that chance meetings aren’t unusual. Christmastime begets melancholy as well. The still renowned author’s incessant intoxication is mainly overlooked. A young pre-school teacher struggles to independently raise her daughter, therefore taking on extra-curricular work. Mutual literary interests bring them together; surprisingly, they find comfort in one another’s company. Unbeknownst, both mask past pain. Whereas the football ex-pro, greedy for rapid advancement at the bank, goes along with anything, or anyone, resetting the dials of his moral compass in the process. Icelandic director Baldvin Z’s story shifts from present-to-past – somewhat confusing initially, with laconism in dialogue and attentive camerawork. Everyone should have a talisman to set course by.

Both documentaries are concise and succinct. Thematically complex, the alarming sociopolitical and environmental issues concern elements below and above ground whose impact involves a multitude of consequences for humanity. H2O MX focus is the water supply for the 22-million inhabitants of Mexico City. Co-directed by Lorenzo Hagerman and José Cohen, we follow the sources seeing the detriment to the locals in surrounding States. Grassroots efforts are admirable. The river of revenge does disperse poetic justice. Whereas Canadian director Jean-Nicolas Orhon’s Slums: Cities of Tomorrow scrutinizes slums globally: some locations are surprising. An attention-grabbing hypothesis suggests the solution is the so-called problem. Obvious is a badly informed public’s understanding, weighed against the actuality. Listening to people living, and thriving in makeshift—settling into permanent—living conditions is informative. Community support still means something; people are resourceful, adapting to and caring for their environment. Many have admirable goals. The facts are here – how the powers that be, and people respond is the vital question.

Alas, the duds hail from Brazil and suffer from lack of plot. What saves director-writer Adirley Queiróz’s complicated semi-sci-fi Hybrid film White Out, Black In are its rap music and production values. Irritatingly bad subtitles—songs subtitles flash on/off screen clinging to the beat—were impossible for this native English speaker to follow. The redeeming quality in August Winds is its coastal village / coconut plantation location; even production values are lackluster. There’s the girl taking care of granny, a plantation worker boyfriend, a meteorologist, a skull, and a corpse. I had the distinct impression midway through that director Gabriel Mascaro was lost, and shifted the focus to bones in an attempt to salvage his flick.

It is worth seeing any of the good films should one come to your local cinema. Each one engages audiences differently and is enlightening: to look compassionately at life’s many variables, to explore alternative potentialities, to risk doing something new.