Friday, September 03, 2004

Movie shorts
The finest film you've probably never heard of appeared in video stores at the end of last month. Broken Wings (****), the first full-length feature from writer-director Nir Bergman, is an astonishing and beautiful rumination on the love that binds families together in difficult times. Orly Silbersatz Banai plays Dafna, a 40-something midwife trying to keep her brood of petulant adolescents and troubled pre-teens together after the family patriarch dies in a freak accident. Banai is magnificent, but the emotional and thematic core of the film is held together by Maya (Maya Mayon), a 17-year-old singer-songwriter aching to break free of the sadness and claustrophobia of her family's existence. Mayon -- who also sings the lovely bit of dream-pop that begins and ends the film -- gives a heartbreaking performance, and Bergman refuses to give in to easy resolutions to the family's multi-layered troubles.

The hottest soundtrack belongs to the hit indie film Garden State (***1/2), written and directed by Scrubs star Zach Braff. The pop soundtrack by underground favorites The Shins, Iron & Wine, and others, is used to great effect by Braff to hold together what is essentially a story of one man's awakening from a decades-long anomic funk. Braff plays overmedicated, struggling actor Andrew Largeman, who returns home to a nameless Jersey 'burb for his mother's funeral, where he tries to reconcile with his estranged father (Ian Holm) and to reconnect with his high school friends, including a bong-toking, nihilist grave-robber magnificently played by Peter Sarsgaard. Along the way he meets the habitual lying and almost certainly manic-depressive Sam (in a career-saving turn by Natalie Portman). While the film stumbles a bit at the end, and seems to skirt some of the more difficult questions it raises about mental illness and pharmacology, it's difficult to resist its charm and its heartfelt earnestness.

Less convincing is Goodbye Lenin (**1/2), a huge hit in its native Germany. Writer-director Wolfgang Becker's tale of East Germany's demise revolves around Alex (Daniel Brühl), a young man whose dedicated socialist mother (Katrin Sass) collapses when she sees him taking part in an anti-DDR demonstration shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She remains comatose for eight months, completely missing the capitalist transformation of her country. Improbably, she wakes up in the hospital, and the doctor tells Alex and his sister (Maria Simon) that the slightest excitement could kill her. From that moment on, Alex tries to maintain a fantasy world for his mother in which the DDR still exists and patches over the cognitive dissonance by having a friend record fake DDR newscasts of West German "refugees" pouring into East Germany to escape the decadence and destruction of capitalism. The film is permeated by a weird nostalgia for East Germany, and the central conceit is not particularly original, nor does one ever quite believe such massive deception is necessary. The viewer sympathizes with Alex's girlfriend, Chulpan Khamatova, who at one point angrily questions the wisdom of systematically deceiving this poor old woman. While there are some truly funny moments, like when Alex pays a couple of kids to sing some crappy old East German songs for his mother, the film never quite decides whether it wants to be serious social commentary or farce.

Still, a few genuine and funny moments are much more than anything contained in the straight-to-video bore Shade (*1/2) , which shamelessly rips off a thousand con movies, and doesn't even bother doing it particularly well. The only bright spot is Sylvester Stallone playing against type as The Dean, a master poker shark who finds himself the target (or so we think, nudge-nudge) of a group of thoroughly uninteresting petty hustlers who are trying to save themselves from some kind of mafioso kingpin. Poker afficionados will be disappointed to find that, unlike in the terrific Rounders, there isn't a single real hand of poker in the movie played straight-up. You can find ten times the drama on a single installment of ESPN's World Series of Poker broadcasts.

More satisfying is Girl With a Pearl Earring (***), which tells the (largely fictionalized, it seems) story of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer's painting of the same name. Scarlett Johansson plays one of Vermeer's maids, who gets drawn into the painter's unpleasant vortex of marital dissatisfaction and Calvinist emotional repression. Colin Firth is good enough as Vermeer, Johansson is reliably superb, and the film manages to convey a great deal of feeling without anything much ever happening. Yet one can't quite help feeling that the narrative itself falls short of major motion picture material.


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