Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review: Goodbye Solo

I’m not sure which quality of “Goodbye Solo” I appreciate more. It’s a beautifully mysterious movie the likes of which I’ve seldom seen outside of art houses specializing in Italian movies about characters that vanish into thin air. It is also a movie about a very likeable, down-to-earth guy who just wants a better life for himself and his stepdaughter.

Both of these qualities really struck a chord with me both times I’ve watched it. I can’t remember any other movie that satisfied me on these two disparate levels at the same time. It’s like a thinking man’s heart warmer.

The movie opens with two men in a taxi cab. They are mid-ride and mid-conversation. Cabbie Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) is immediately endearing. He’s a young man who has that sort of look, that sort of laugh. The much older William (Red West) is his fare. He’s a sharp contrast, grizzled and bitter. Solo listens as William offers him a huge advance to be his dedicated driver.

And, on a designated day, William tells him he will earn that advance by taking him on a one way trip to a windy mountain observation point. It’s a request that Solo will spend the rest of the movie coming to terms with. He wonders why a man, even an old and bitter one such as William, would want to end it all.

Solo takes the money. Heck, he certainly needs it. But will he be able to help a man commit suicide?

The two develop a relationship out of that chance meeting in Solo’s cab. Solo will learn about William and his past, but the information doesn’t come easily. This isn’t a movie of long, revealing speeches. Solo learns about William in fragments, an odd gesture, a slip of the tongue, a photograph in a coat pocket.

This puts us in the tantalizing position of playing detective. We work along with Solo, trying to figure out what makes William tick. And just when we and Solo think we have him figured out, he throws a mean left hook and decks us.

We and William also get to know Solo – and what a delight that is. He’s an immigrant from Senegal, still a work of the American dream in progress. The most cherished person in his life is his young stepdaughter Alex (played engagingly by newcomer Diana Franco Galindo). Everything Solo does, he does with highest hopes for her. William is visibly warmed by seeing them together. These are the only times we see through his tough exterior.

The movie’s most charming moments are between Solo and Alex. In one casually natural scene, Solo arrives home exhausted and collapses on Alex’s bed as she finishes her homework. Later, she helps him study. His dream is to become a flight attendant for a small airline. We feel their closeness as she quizzes him on the proper procedure for an emergency landing.

The movie opens by dropping us into the middle of a conversation, challenging us to quickly catch up with its characters, and it ends with a scene that allows us to sit back and wonder what happened. Was Solo able to change William’s mind, somehow, in the end? We don’t know for sure.

It’s a great ending. And maybe, just maybe, we’re offered a clue when William has a perfect opportunity to say “Goodbye Solo” and does not.

“Goodbye Solo” is rated R for language. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Oct. 28 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Review: 9500 Liberty

“9500 Liberty” is a landmark movie. Its makers sensed that their footage was too important to keep in the can. People needed to see it as soon as possible. So they began posting raw footage to YouTube and soliciting feedback. Their documentary became a piece of Internet age interactive moviemaking.

The movie takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to following events in Virginia’s Prince William County. Council members strive to pass anti-immigration law that would require police officers to question anyone they have “probable cause” to suspect as being an undocumented immigrant.

It would be a blank check authorizing racial profiling and leads to fierce battle lines being drawn. It will tear a town apart. It will provoke author John Grisham to write, “‘9500 Liberty’ makes it clear that when we, as a nation of immigrants, debate the immigration issue, we are defining our very identity as Americans.”

On one side are longtime citizens of the county, worried about everything from declining property values to fears and frustrations over hearing Spanish spoken in the corner store. On the other is the rapidly growing Hispanic population, mostly worried about earning wages and raising their families.

The movie offers a straight forward account, but it’s made riveting, moving, and maddening by its gallery of characters. “9500 Liberty” has everything, a chorus of angered citizens, a housing contractor with a unique approach to free speech, a terrifying villain, and the housewife who brought him to his knees.

During the council meetings, everyone with an opinion has a moment at the microphone. Most memorable is a man so filled with hatred that he trembles from his upper lip all the way down to his shoes. He’s balanced by young children sent to the microphone by their parents who are too upset – or too wise – to try to address the council in English.

The title is a street address: 9500 Liberty Street. The property is owned by home improvement contractor Gaudencio Fernandez and on it still stands one wall from a demolished house. The wall faces a busy street corner. Fernandez fills that “billboard” with his thoughts. As time goes by, he refills the wall with increasingly desperate thoughts.

The villain – and instigator of the legislation – is blogger and self-styled political activist Greg Letiecq. Like everyone in the movie, he is given plenty of freedom to express himself – and plenty of rope to tie a noose around his neck. He’s a man on a mission to rid his town of Hispanics and drunk with the power of seeing his words get thousands of hits.

Enter Elena Schlossberg, a stay-at-home mom with two young children and a computer. Feeling helpless in the face of Letiecq, she attends a blogger convention and is struck by a lightning bolt. She creates a blog of her own, an anti-Letiecq blog, and turns her kitchen table into an unlikely command post.

The movie capitalizes ingeniously on technology and the Internet. But the most fascinating moment feels like an old school plea for making use of whatever is at hand. Faced with Letiecq’s relentless blogging, Fernandez makes use of that wall and some paint to create something remarkable.

He had a big surface to write his thoughts and he had lots of traffic flowing past it. His “liberty wall” became perhaps the most powerful blog of all.

“9500 Liberty” has not been rated by the MPAA. It is appropriate for all ages and would be highly appropriate viewing for most school children. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Oct. 21 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review: Songcatcher

With every Cinema 100 series, there’s typically one movie that I’m the most excited to share with our audience. It’s usually a movie that has floated in and out of our planning meetings for years, but was never selected because it was little known. A board member would persist though until we finally included it.

Then, when I watch it on DVD to write up a review and program notes, I think, “Wow. Why wasn’t that movie more successful? It’s fantastic.” That happened a few series ago with “The Snow Walker” which turned out to be one of the most popular movies we’ve ever shown. I think “Songcatcher” will be this season’s surprise hit.

The story begins with Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), a brilliant turn of the century musicologist, as she gets passed over for a university promotion. She’s a victim of the “good old boys club” with a male newcomer getting the advancement that she’d spent years earning. Providing salt, the dean seems oblivious to her disappointment and scolds her for questioning his reasoning.

She splits and travels to the Appalachian Mountains to spend time with her sister and to get over her anger and disappointment. But she gets more than she’d expected, far more. Her sister is a school teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. She has a pretty young assistant and, with a little encouragement, the young woman sings a ballad she’s known since childhood.

What Penleric quickly realizes is that she’s stumbled upon the find of a lifetime for someone of her occupation. This young woman – and soon she realizes many others in the isolated community – holds in her memory a priceless album of Scots-Irish ballads that have remained unchanged for over 200 years and are unlike anything she or her colleagues have ever heard.

She gets a chance to catalogue something unique and sets out to record every song she can coax into the air. She plans to assemble them into an annotated songbook that will hopefully bring her the recognition she has sought for so long. But this special world – as with all special worlds in storytelling – is really just a variation of the university she left behind, a place to learn lessons and to go through changes. The men of this world will once again thwart her progress.

Directed by Maggie Greenwald, the movie is a beautifully photographed portrait of a people and a place, effortlessly lyrical, even poetic. It reminded me of Jane Campion’s equally fine portrait of artists as young lovers, “Bright Star.” And Greenwald’s vision is both feminist and romantic to its core as well.

Penleric finds her romantic challenge – adversary at first, ally eventually – in the dark, bearded character of Tom Bledsoe (nicely played by Aidan Quinn). And just as with all great romantic challenges, he knows of both worlds, the mountains, the city, and provides her with just what she needs to leave the men of her past, in the past.

I watch lots of movies, but only occasionally do I see one that makes me want to sing its praises to everyone I meet. I was telling people at church, I was telling people at work, and I was telling family members to give “Songcatcher” a shot. It’s one of those rare finds that make me glad I watch lots of movies.

“Songcatcher” is rated PG-13 for sexual content and an intense scene of childbirth. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Oct. 14 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.