Archive for February 18th, 2013

PIFF: Shun Li, Alois Nebel, 80 Million, English Vinglish

More reviews of Portland International Film Festival films we’ve seen this year:

In Shun Li and the Poet, a Chinese immigrant to Italy is sent to work in a cafe in a small fishing village near Venice, where she strikes up a friendship with a Yugoslavian immigrant fisherman. Although the relationship is entirely platonic, this pleases neither of their communities and tensions run high. I had a lot of sympathy for Shun Li’s language difficulties (although I enjoyed the fact that I could almost follow the Italian when she was speaking) but the fisherman should really have known better and it’s really a sad situation all around, and at the conclusion the situation is resolved through mechanisms not entirely unclear. A pretty film, but somewhat slow-moving and dreary (the weather is nearly always rainy or overcast). Four stars out of five.

The single word I would choose to describe Alois Nebel is “leaden.” Computer-driven rotoscoped animation in black, white, and six shades of gray yields a film that looks like a graphic novel brought to life: the movement and backgrounds are extremely realistic, while the characters themselves appear hand-drawn. The film has a unique visual style — light and shadow are particularly well-handled — but the plot, involving a small-scale atrocity from 1945 whose repercussions are finally resolved during the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, moves extremely slowly. Two major characters barely speak at all, making the action somewhat hard to follow, and one of them spends a chunk of the film in a mental hospital, which is a downer. Visually interesting but not much fun; three stars out of five.

80 Million plays out like a caper film, but much more serious. It’s based on a true story: in Poland in 1981, members of the Solidarity trade union smuggled 80 million zlotys of their own money out of a banking system that was rigged against them. In a country where even the secret police can’t trust each other, the tension is almost overwhelming, though the film is not without humor. I was really not sure which of the main characters would make it out alive, and knowing that they were all based on real people made the situation still more chilling. One of the best films I saw at this PIFF; five stars out of five.

In English Vinglish, a smart but naive Indian woman, a wife and mother of two, is embarrassed by her poor English skills. Even though Hindi is the official language of India, English is the one common language and her lack of proficiency embarrasses her and mortifies her children. When she is suddenly called away to New York to assist her sister with a wedding, she seizes the opportunity to take intensive English classes, which leads to moments of great humor and emotional turmoil. Though it’s not a musical, strictly speaking, there’s quite a bit of music and dance, and the film is laugh-out-loud funny and heart-rending by turns (though the stakes may be low in absolute terms, the emotional impact of some scenes, such as her first attempt to order lunch in a New York coffee shop, is devastating). My favorite film of this PIFF; five stars out of five.

Men at Lunch is a documentary about the famous photo of eleven steelworkers having a casual lunch on a girder eighty stories above New York in 1932. The film goes into the archives, interviews photographers and historians, and visits with descendants of two of the men in Ireland. But even at only 80 minutes it’s a bit long for its subject matter. How many different ways can you say “we don’t really know for sure who took the photo or who these men were”? Also, the photo was frequently shown in various forms of re-creation (actors on a beam and/or a computer-created three-dimensional moving version of the original image) which made it difficult to really appreciate it as a photograph. It is an interesting photo, but not that interesting. Three stars out of five.

Also, special bonus film Stop Making Sense. Not part of PIFF, but as far as I’m concerned it’s one of the greatest concert films of all time and when you have a chance to see it on the big screen, you go. David Byrne is a strange, strange man, but his energy, along with the rest of the band, is boundless. And as every song began I found myself thinking “oh yeah, this is my favorite!” I guess they are all my favorite songs. Five stars out of five. Maybe six.