Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Willow Tree

Majid Majidi has been quietly working away for years building up a body of work of supreme simplicity, beauty, and grace. My favorite example is the two young siblings who, forced by circumstances, share a pair of shoes in “Children of Heaven.”

"The Willow Tree" takes a darker, moodier, more volatile approach, but Majidi’s light and delicate hand and wonderfully observed eye is still at the forefront. I was often in awe by the sheer simplicity of his scenes and the emotional wallop they packed.

“The Willow Tree” tells the story of Professor Youssef who has been blind since age eight when fireworks scorched his eyes. He’s now middle-aged, happily married, and lovingly devoted to his young daughter. We meet him as this juncture because doctors have developed a surgical procedure that may restore his sight. Shortly after we meet him, he is off to Paris for the operation.

I may be giving too much away by this comparison – at least for people who’ve read Keyes’ book – but “The Willow Tree” offers a structure and effect similar to “Flowers for Algernon.” In that story, a mentally challenged man is given the chance to live a life of above average intellect through an experimental surgery. His loss of innocence though proves to be a proverbial two-edged sword. Both joy and pain beyond his prior ability to imagine comes with knowing too much.

We see expressions of Youssef’s happiness before the surgery such as the idyllic opening scene where twigs float down a stream rolling and mingling in the gentle turbulence until they arrive at father and daughter, seated under a tree, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon. At another moment, his wedding band slips from his finger and rolls across the floor. As he gropes in despair, his wife nudges it carefully toward his searching hand.

After his surgery, he impatiently tears away his bandages and moves toward the light from a window. His first visual image in decades is of an ant struggling across a window sill under the weight of an enormous crumb. He walks out into the hospital corridors and runs back and forth, giggling childishly until he stops in his tracks, sobered by his reflection in a window. He doesn’t recognize the old man he now sees.

Movingly rendered is his arrival home at the airport. He is greeted by a mass of people, cheering and waving, all of them visually complete strangers to him. He desperately searches the faces for any glimmer of recognition, finally settling on one who must be his mother. Hers is the only face filled with calm, caring warmth. He mouths “mother” and she nods. She then helps him lay eyes on his wife and daughter for the first time in his life. I don’t cry during movies often. I did here.

Youssef also faces a newfound emotional dilemma. He finds himself infatuated with his pretty young niece. Now that his eyes have expanded the size of his world, so have they expanded the range of his temptations. Peering cautiously through leaves, rose in hand, he anticipates a meeting with his new infatuation only to be devastated as she happily hops into a car with a young man. The camera then tilts down to reveal that his wife has also observed his crush, and his crushing disappointment.

It is the saddest moment in Majidi’s work to date when Youssef’s mother observes her son’s desire for infidelity. And later, as he throws a childish tantrum, she quietly walks away, leaving him alone. Their eyes meet across a courtyard – although the expanse feels measured more in years than feet – for a final brief moment, a moment where both register the enormity of her disappointment. Then she enters her house and closes the door.

I’ve been adding and re-adding all of this up for days and haven’t quite decided how I feel about the moral of the tale. Youssef’s blindness seems a metaphor for the chasteness of Iranian culture, of how sin and temptation are avoided by hiding women from sight. But, is the film a very conservative one by saying the moment a woman becomes visible to a man he can only sin? Or is the film demonstrating the futility of a Hijab to conceal human nature?

I guess another viewing is in store and, given Majidi talents, I look forward to it with pleasure.

“The Willow Tree” has not been rated, but is suitable for all ages. It screens at the Grand Theater on Thursday, October 15 at 3:00 and 5:30.

Waltz with Bashir

“Waltz with Bashir” is not like your kids’ cartoons. It’s filled with images so harrowing that even some adults will have to turn away. They are images of war that people, in a perfect world should never have to see. But, as we all know, our world is far from perfect.

“Waltz” is a kaleidoscopic movie. It takes on a documentary-like approach with an Israeli film director interviewing fellow veterans of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon as he attempts to reconstruct his memories of the conflict. It is fragmented and has the flow of someone sorting through a box of his memories, dreams, and reflections, trying to figure out what were really real and what were just awful manifestations of his imagination.

The choice to present this – except for some agonizing closing images – using animation is appropriate. In dreamscapes, anything can happen and can flow and morph into anything else, something animation has always been most aptly suited to convey. And besides, did these things really happen? They seem almost too fantastical, too otherworldly, to be true. And some images like a huge nude woman back-floating in the sea clearly are.

Without a typical storyline pushing and pulling us through the movie, we are allowed to sit back and absorb essentially a series of episodes or set pieces. The best of these all revolve around beautiful, almost unexpectedly lyrical scenes within the context of a war movie where music and image engage in intricate little dances.

There is a sequence where young soldiers glide down country roads and through deserted streets of a shell-shocked town within the “safety” of tanks. They bop and sing to a folksy, Dylanesque tune and pass a bag of candy back and forth as they casually crush sides of buildings by turning too sharply and rolling over parked cars, crushing them like toys. Then, silently, a bullet pierces a soldier’s throat and the music, like the tank, is stopped dead in its tracks.

Then there is my favorite scene. A soldier, overwhelmed by feelings of fear and confusion over the whereabouts of the enemy – or even the very nature and identity of said enemy – pirouettes into the middle of a street and sprays the surrounding buildings, some adorned with giant posters of national hero President-elect Bashir Gemayel, with an orgy of bullets while a delicate waltz of tinkling piano keys defies the images on screen.

Ultimately, “Waltz with Bashir” is a creative examination of post traumatic stress disorder. There is an astute scene where our narrator, just home from the war, walks the streets of his home town. He moves about and turns his head from side to side peering into restaurants and down alleys at normal speed while everyone around him is racing at accelerated speed. It is as if his mind has been chemically altered by his experiences and now everyday life seems unbearably trivial, everyone taking everything for granted.

In this sense, it’s a movie that demands to be experienced – and occasionally endured. It stands alongside such classics as “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home.”

“Waltz with Bashir” is rated R for some disturbing images of atrocities, strong violence, brief nudity and a scene of graphic sexual content. It screens at the Grand Theater on Thursday, October 8 at 3:00 and 5:30.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Kite Runner

Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favorite colors. – Advice to Amir’s father in “The Kite Runner.”

Perhaps, instead of calling this series “From Israel to India,” we should have titled it “From Hollywood to India.” Our series opener “The Kite Runner” – despite its faraway setting – is really a Hollywood movie through and through. It may be set in Afghanistan, but its methods of storytelling and its sense of dramatization owe everything to the Hollywood tradition.

This is almost certainly a good thing, a fine point of entry for an audience used to dramatic highs and lows, of heroes and villains. Two films down the road, with “The Willow Tree,” audiences will be asked to struggle a bit while deciding who to root for – if anyone – and exactly why.

Directed by Marc Forster (“Quantum of Solace” – yes, the James Bond movie), “The Kite Runner” relates the troubled story of two boyhood friends, Amir and Hassan. Set in the present, it tells most of its tale from the safe distance of a flashback. Amir, now a writer living in San Francisco, is cradling his first book in his hands admiringly when the phone rings. It’s Afghanistan on the line, a voice from the past, calling him to come back.

We meet the youthful Amir – and Hassan – during a kite flying contest. It’s a brutal display with kites diving and ducking as flyers attempt to cut opponent kites from the sky with strings coated with ground glass. Amir is a great flyer. Hassan, his assistant, retrieves fallen enemy kites. He’s a kite runner, also a great one. He instinctively knows exactly where a cut kite will land. They’re a great team.

Amir’s father is proud of his son’s skills with a kite in the air, but not with how he hesitates to stand up to his enemies on the ground. His father is ashamed of him. Returning home after the kite contest, Amir overhears his father bemoan to a colleague, “A boy who won’t stand up for himself, becomes a man who won’t stand up for anything.”

Later, Amir gets advice of a different sort. Amir describes one of his stories to Hassan: “It’s about a poor man who finds a magic cup. He learns that if he weeps into the cup, his tears turn to pearls. At the end of the story, he’s sitting on a mountain of pearls and holding a bloody knife in his hand and his dead wife in his arms.” To make him weep, he has killed the one he loved most. To this, Hassan asks simply, “Why didn’t he just smell an onion?”

The central scene – following the big kite flying tournament – tests Amir and Hassan’s friendship to the limit. It is an agonizing turn of events. It is almost too much to watch. The film may have gone too far and certainly paints its villains too black. But, motivated by shame and feelings of cowardice on Amir’s part and pain on Hassan’s, the two boys are forever changed. They grow apart.

The final movement of the movie follows Amir back to Afghanistan in the present day, responding to the phone call. It has the feel of a man determined to right many wrongs. It’s Amir’s battle to reconcile the conflict between his father’s words and Hassan’s question. His father had expected his son to be certain colors. Hassan had hoped for other colors. Now, it’s the moment of truth. Which crayons will Amir choose?

The movie ends with a kite flying scene of a completely different flavor, one that is peaceful, a happy day for Amir, finally. It offers reassurance that we’ve been longing and hoping for, that knives have been replaced by onions. It makes me sure his next book will be one I’d love to read.

With our second movie, the Israeli war movie “Waltz with Bashir,” we truly begin the trek of the series title. And after passing through Iran and Kazakhstan, we will end up in India with “Bombai” (“Bombay”).

“The Kite Runner” is rated PG-13 for strong thematic material including the rape of a child, violence and brief strong language. It shows at the Grand Theater on Thursday, October 1 at 3:00 and 5:30.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fall 2009 Series - From India to Israel

October 1 The Kite Runner - 2007 (Afghanistan and USA) - 128 minutes, PG-13
October 8 Vals im Bashir (Waltz with Bashir) - 2008 (Israel) - 90 minutes, R
October 15 Beed-e Majnoon (The Willow Tree) - 2005 (Iran) - 96 minutes, Unrated
October 22 Tulpan - 2008 (Kazakhstan) - 100 minutes, Unrated
October 29 Bumbai (Bombay) - 1995 (India) - 130 minutes, Unrated