Book vs. Film: Red River

When someone turns a mediocre book into a great film, people forget that it ever was a book. Such is the case with Borden Chase’s decent but unexceptional novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, and the cinematic masterpiece that Howard Hawks made out of it, Red River.

imageAs I mentioned in my Red River Blu-ray review, Criterion includes a paperback copy of Chase’s novel in the package. At the time I wrote that review, I had not yet read the book. I have now.

But be warned: This article contains spoilers. You should see the film before you read any further. And if you’re really a fanatic about spoilers
–even spoilers for long-forgotten books that aren’t that good to begin with–maybe you should read the novel first, too.

No one ever agreed on what to call this novel. When it first appeared serially in the Saturday Evening Post, it was simply The Chisholm Trail. By the time it came out in hardcover, the title had grown to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail. The film’s opening credits refer to it cryptically as "the Saturday Evening Post story." The movie’s commercial success gave the paperback edition the  title Red River. Criterion, in republishing the book as a DVD/Blu-ray extra, returned to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, probably because it sounds so appropriately cheesy.

Now that I’ve read it, I’m not surprised that Howard Hawks was attracted to this story. It’s about men who work a dangerous job for a living, have the professional skills needed for that job, and define their masculinity by their profession. It has one important female character, who is smart and strong and knows how to take care of herself in a man’s world. That pretty much describes half of Hawk’s work.

Hawks’ film closely follows Chase’s story, but not too closely (Chase wrote the first draft of the screenplay). Many of the characters changed from page to screen. Both Cherry Valance and Tess Millay are far less likeable and sympathetic in the book. The book’s Cherry–self-centered and cold-blooded–is probably a more realistic view of a hired gun than the one John Ireland played. But I missed the evolving, arguably homo-erotic friendship between Cherry and Matt that helps make the film so interesting.

The book’s Tess is quite willing (and skilled) at getting one man to kill another for her benefit. Cherry kills a man for her. Then, when Dunston and Cherry make their deadly confrontation, she takes steps to make sure that Dunston is the survivor.

In the novel, Groot is merely the cook; we only meet him on the cattle drive. We never get to know him. In the film, he’s Dunson’s sidekick from the start and becomes a major character. That makes his decision to join the mutineers all the more dramatic and meaningful.

Also in the book, Dunson–that paragon of western strength and reckless violence who could only have been played by John Wayne–is English. That’s right; he comes from the land of teatime and the stiff upper lip, although he never behaves like such a person. When I read his dialog on the page, I didn’t hear a British accent in my head; I heard John Wayne.

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Both the book and the film try for an epic feel, but only the film succeeds. Chase attempts a mythic style through purple prose ("A score of years–mad, cruel, bitter years of conflict in which a nation trembled on the rim of ruin") and by inflating the story’s stakes. Matt, and Chase, keep reminding us that this cattle drive isn’t about saving Dunson’s ranch; it’s about saving Texas.

Hawks, on the other hand, created a true epic feel through Russell Harlan’s Fordian black-and-white photography, and Dimitri Tiomkin’s magnificent score. Only Tiomkin could make "Git Along, Little Doggies" sound important and dramatic.

Borden Chase hated Hawks’ happy ending, which undercuts the epic feel of the story. We’ve been set up for a fight to the death between Dunson and Matt–the surrogate father and son heroes who must inevitably become enemies. But their fight turns into reconciliation, and everyone smiles at the end.

The book sort of ends as epic tragedy. Dunson–fatally wounded from his confrontation with Cherry–is too weak to fight. Matt and Tess take him south, so that he can die in his beloved Texas.

But for real epic tragedy, Matt would have had to kill Dunson. After all, the story is really Mutiny on the Bounty seen through the lens of Oedipus Rex.

There’s something else about Hawk’s ending that’s always bothered me: Cherry’s fate. His brief confrontation with Dunson leaves the older man with a flesh wound, but Cherry falls to the ground. Men come running to help him. All this happens in the background, far from the camera. A major character, one whom we’ve grown to like, who fell trying to save the film’s most likeable hero, ends up either seriously wounded or dead. We don’t know which. The film doesn’t seem to care about him any more.

And everyone smiles at the end.

Despite these flaws, Red River is still a great movie–one of the best westerns ever made, and a study in ways to be a man. And it’s based on an entertaining but unexceptional novel.

Boyhood: As Real as Fiction Gets

A Long-form drama

  • Written and directed by Richard Linklater

I’m a sucker for long films that take place over the course of several years. But I’ve never seen one as real as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. This isn’t a story of an extraordinary person, or of a normal person going through an extraordinary experience. But it does something even more special. It follows the experiences of a relatively normal boy growing up, from elementary school until his arrival at college. With few exceptions, most of his experiences are pretty common.

The result is an exceptional motion picture. Running nearly three hours, without conventional setups and manufactured disasters, it never lags. This just may be the best new film of the year.

You probably already know Boyhood‘s gimmick–it was shot off and on over a period of 12 years. Thus, we get to watch young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grow up for real. And we see his parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) move into middle age.

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But this time, the gimmick works–beautifully. In most films set over a long period of time, we’re aware of the moment when the child actor is replaced by an adult. Or we notice the changing makeup as the characters age. Not here. Aside from occasional hairstyle changes, people in one scene look pretty much as they did in the last. But not quite. You can see those subtle, barely noticeable changes that happen to everyone year by year. The 18-year-old Mason looks very different from the six-year-old, but since we see the whole transition, as we do in life.

This technique has another benefit. The film begins in 2002, with the attitudes, fads, and technologies of the time, and slowly works up to 2013. Yet the early scenes never feel like period pieces, because they weren’t shot as period pieces. The scenes set in 2002 were shot in 2002, by people who didn’t know about smartphones or Barak Obama.

Now then, on to the story:

Mason’s life isn’t all that easy. His parents are divorced, and neither of them have much money. He and his sister live with their mom, who became a mother way too soon and has a history of making poor romantic choices. Their father loves them, but needs to grow up himself.

For the most part, Boyhood avoids the sort of dramatic and disastrous situations that drive most narrative films. Several times, I thought that a horrible accident was eminent, or that Linklater was setting up a conflict for a subplot, but I was almost always wrong. For instance, a scene involving middle school bullies lacks the obvious follow-up.

A lifetime of movie going had taught me to expect these plot points. But when they didn’t materialize, I felt relieved, not disappointed.

Which isn’t to say that everything goes smoothly for Mason and his family. There are the usual problems of childhood and adolescence, but there are also some very scary scenes that go beyond normal childhood experiences. Like I said, their mom makes some poor romantic choices.

Fifty years from now, if civilization survives, people will still be watching Boyhood, both as a document of the early 21st century, and because it so perfectly reflects life as we all know it. It’s a remarkable work.

A Life Itself at the Movies

A- Documentary

  • Directed by Steve James

The first thing you have to understand about Life Itself, Steve James’ biographical documentary about Roger Ebert, is that James is hardly a dispassionate observer. He was not a close friend to Ebert, but he owed a lot to the famous film critic. It was Ebert, and his partner Gene Siskel, who championed James’ first feature, Hoop Dreams, and made him an important filmmaker.

The next thing you need to know is that Life Itself is no rehash of Ebert’s autobiography. The book, like all autobiographies, is told from one point of view–Ebert’s. The film shows Ebert’s life from many points of view. Friends, family, co-workers, filmmakers, and other critics–some of whom didn’t care much for Ebert–get their chance to discuss the brilliant writer, passionate cinephile, and overweight alcoholic who became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and then the most influential film critic of all time. And one of the best.

Siskel and Ebert in the early days

Overall, the film gives us a far more positive view of Ebert than modesty would have allowed him to say about himself. But others can gush about Ebert’s fast yet concise writing style, his advocacy for rare and wonderful films that might never have had a chance without him, and his enthusiastic lust for life. And, of course, his courage in the face of cancer and the botched operations that robbed him of the ability to eat, drink, or talk.

James started working on the film just before Ebert went into the hospital once again, in what they didn’t know at the time was the beginning of the end. As it turned out, this was the beginning of the end for Ebert. The film cuts between two timelines–the physical deterioration of his last months and his entire life. Obviously, the two stories come together in the end.

Be prepared. This film spends a lot of time looking at a man without a jaw. Well, he sort of has a jaw–a u-shaped piece of flesh–sans bones and muscles–hanging below his gaping mouth. And when you look into that mouth, you see his neck or, depending on the camera angle, what’s behind him. It’s pretty disturbing at first, but his upbeat and joking personality helps you adjust.

We hear a lot of Ebert’s words in Life Itself. Sometimes, they’re from old recordings. Sometimes they’re his computer voice. Other times it’s an actor–one who sounds very much like him.

The film has another hero: his wife (and now widow), Chaz. Ebert didn’t marry until he was 50–to a woman who already had grown children. It’s clear that she has been his rock through the tribulations of his final decade. It’s a touching romance, and like all near-perfect love stories, it has to end in death.

And yes, there’s a lot about movies here. We see clips from films as we hear his reviews. Many of those movies are now classics and readily available. But the film’s real nostalgia comes from clips of the TV shows, with Siskel and Ebert agreeing or arguing about one film or another. (Richard Roeper, who became Ebert’s on-screen partner after Siskel died, isn’t even mentioned. I’m not complaining.)

Steve James has given us a completely biased look at Ebert’s life. But it’s also an entertaining and informative work about a man who joyfully embraced both the pleasures of cinema, and of life itself.

Palo Alto: More Dazed and Completely Confused

B+

  • Written and directed by Gia Coppola
  • From the book Palo Alto Stores by James Franco

High school kids lead rough lives. They’re under great pressure to get into a good university. They desperately want to break free of their parents. They have to deal with an immense peer pressure. They’re trying to work out their own, often bizarre philosophies. Their hormones are raging, and even the sexually experienced among them don’t really understand what to do about it (and not to do about it). Booze and pot don’t help.

In Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, based on a collection of short stories by James Franco, many of the teenagers are reaching an emotional boiling point. Disaster seems right around the corner. Coppola (Francis’ granddaughter) weaves their stories into a slick yet compassionate drama.

The central characters, April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), sort of like each other, but neither of them seem to know how to approach the other. Although they’re both upper-middle-class white kids growing up in the same town, they seem to have little in common. (Judging from this film, almost everyone in Palo Alto is white.)

We get no indication that April drives drunk, has sex with people she barely knows, or commits acts of random vandalism. I suppose that makes her a “good girl.” But she has a major crush on her soccer coach (James Franco), and she sees a lot of him since she babysits his son. The real problem: The soccer coach, who’s a single dad, has a pretty strong crush on April, as well.

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Teddy, on the other hand, is definitely a bad boy. He’s almost constantly stoned, drives recklessly, and appears to care little about anything. But there’s a soft spot in his soul that suggests he can be better.

Unfortunately, he’s fallen in with Fred (Nat Wolff), another heavy drinker and pot smoker who also gets his kicks from danger and destruction. A complete sociopath, Freddy can act the perfect gentleman while trying to bed a girl, then treat her like dirt as soon as he succeeds. Much of the film involves Teddy’s emotional tightrope walk between Fred’s dangerous excitement and his own better half.

If April is the good girl, than Emily (Zoe Levin) is the “bad” one. She gives blowjobs to just about any boy who smiles at her. Afterwards, she doesn’t understand why she’s unsatisfied.

Coppola clearly doesn’t approve of heavy pot and booze use among teenagers, but she seems to accept a more deadly drug without question. Judging from this film, every teenager in Palo Alto smokes cigarettes, and no one seems to think there’s anything wrong about it. There’s even talk about getting a wish when you smoke the last cigarette in the pack.

Despite the title, Palo Alto could have taken place in any affluent town. There’s no real sense of Palo Alto as a unique place. Neither Stanford University nor Silicon Valley are ever mentioned. The film wasn’t even shot in Palo Alto.

Wherever it’s set and shot, Palo Alto is a clear-eyed look at teenagers on the brink. It’s worth catching.

Bad film turns good: My review of Young & Beautiful

B drama

  • Written and directed by François Ozon

As François Ozon’s drama about a 17-year-old prostitute nears its mid-point, you might find yourself wondering why you’re sitting through such an awful piece of junk. Then, beyond all expectations, the film gets interesting. The once-cardboard characters become intriguing and worth caring about. A bad film has suddenly turned into a good one.

Ozon’s script follows the young Isabelle (Marine Vacth) over the course of nearly a year. The four seasons provide formal act breaks. The intertitles “Summer,” “Autumn,” “Winter,” and “Spring” tell us that time has passed and that the story is about to fundamentally change.

In the first act, Summer, Isabelle turns 17 and loses her virginity . She seems like a typical, upper middle-class teenage girl, dependent on her parents and mildly resentful of them. Her first sexual experience (and the first of many sex scenes in the film) isn’t particularly wonderful or horrible; just uncomfortable and embarrassing. In other words, it’s pretty typical for a first time.

In this part of the story, another character seems far more interesting than Isabelle: her voyeuristic kid brother (Fantin Ravat). The film’s first shot is his point of view–through binoculars. He wants to know everything about her sex life and asks her bluntly. He helps her sneak out of the house for a tryst in exchange for her telling him what happened. The brother’s importance as a character drops considerably after Summer–just one of Young & Beautiful’s many disappointments.

An intertitle soon tells us it’s Autumn, and the movie plunks us into an entirely different world. Isabelle is now a prostitute. Nothing shows or explains the transition. She’s not doing it for the money–her family has plenty. She doesn’t seem to enjoy sex with older men who have to pay for it. She goes to great lengths to hide her double life from her family and friends, yet she hides her significant bundles of cash very badly.

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It’s in this second act that Young & Beautiful really becomes dull and nearly unbearable. I’m no prude. I actually like nudity and explicit sex in movies. But for these to work, the sex has to move the story or tell us something about the characters. Or, at the very least, it needs to be erotic. The many sex scenes concentrated into this one act fail on all of those counts.

Then, against all odds, an excellent film emerges in in the third act, Winter. Isabelle’s mother (Géraldine Pailhas) finds out what’s been going on. Suddenly, we’ve got a family in crisis, trying to come to terms with their daughter’s inexplicable behavior. We finally learn anything meaningful about the characters. Ozon shows us the mother’s temper, the bumbling stepfather trying to make everything right, and the difficulties Isabella has reaching out to other people in a meaningful way.

As she navigates her notorious way through the shocked family, she can be inappropriately flirtatious, truly sorry, or play the victim. She knows a secret about her mother that she can use if need be.

I don’t want to go into too many details about the second half of the film. I will say that it’s a fine reward for sitting through the first half. Besides, the great Charlotte Rampling turns up in Act 4 (Spring), in a small but pivotal role.

The first half of Young & Beautiful is about a physically attractive but otherwise uninteresting woman having a lot of sex. The second half puts everything in perspective and helps you understand the protagonist’s bizarre behavior.

It’s a close call, but I’d say that getting to the second half of this film is worth sitting through the first.

Before Monday: My review of Le Week-End

C+ Drama

  • Written by Hanif Kureishi
  • Directed by Roger Michell

If the shockingly misleading trailer for Le Week-End makes you want to see the movie, don’t. It is not, as you may have been led to believe, a romantic frolic about an aging couple rekindling their romance in the city of lights. Quite the opposite. It’s a dark and depressing drama about a marriage in horrible decline.

I can’t blame the film for bad marketing. But I can blame it for it’s own faults. While Le Week-End has several very good scenes and one fully-realized, interesting, and sympathetic lead character, it suffers from a overly manipulated story and another lead character so despicable as to be unbelievable. The result provides sadness without insight.

The plot is reminiscent of the Before… trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), and yet feels far more contrived. On their 30th anniversary, a very unhappy English couple go to Paris for a weekend. Whether they even hope it will rekindle something seems unlikely.

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What empathy the film offers goes entirely to Nick (Jim Broadbent), a man of deep insecurity coming to the end of his rope. He’s lost his job and is running out of money. Age is delivering one new physical pain after another. His wife treats him with contempt, and their son has become a father without growing into responsible adulthood.

That wife, Meg (Lindsay Duncan) , is horrible. She refuses to stay in the modest hotel where they have a reservation, and insists on going to the most expensive place in Paris–despite their serious money problems. She insults him, flirts then rejects him, and argues about everything. When he falls on a cobblestone street and lies there in pain, she walks away.

Why doesn’t Nick simply divorce her? He can’t afford to.

Halfway though the film, they run into an old, once-very close friend of Nick’s (Jeff Goldblum), who somehow never met his wife of 30 years. This chance meeting leads to an insufferable party filled with annoying intellectuals. A series of toasts at the dinner table become of the film’s climax, where the main characters stand up and express their feelings out loud to strangers.

The film has a few light-hearted moments, and even a few comic ones. Occasionally, Nick and Meg appear to actually love each other in some strange way. But these moments never last. The entire cast give excellent performances, but only Broadbent is well-served by the script. His character is the only reason to see this film.

A lot of talent went into Le Week-End. Very little of it shows.

Quick Opinions on The Past and Dallas Buyers Club

I know. I haven’t been writing much lately aside from the weekly newsletter. I’ve been busy. But I have managed to get to a couple of current films.

And I chose well. I really loved both of these pictures, although The Past is definitely the best of them..

A The Past
Between this new film and A Separation (read my review), I’m ready to declare writer/director Asghar Farhadi our era’s Ozu. Like them, his intimate family dramas catch unique yet universal human beings at their best and worst. His low-key films don’t tell you what to think or feel–the camera work feels neutral and there’s little or no music–but he catches ordinary people in their moments of crisis, and in doing so tells us a lot about our species.

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This story concerns a married but long-separated couple. The man returns from far away to his old home, temporarily, to manage the divorce. He finds a dangerously dysfunctional family, with a selfish, manipulative, and possibly insane mother, a boyfriend trapped in a moral dilemma, and children in desperate need a sympathetic parental figure. The story moves quietly from one crisis to another, without ever feeling forced or melodramatic.

Although officially an Iranian film, The Past is set and was shot entirely in France, and most of the dialog is in French. Outside of the children, all of the main characters are Iranian immigrants. Little is made of that. There’s no sense of religious Islam or political exile.

A Dallas Buyers Club
Compared to The Past, this story of people dying of AIDS is practically upbeat. But then, it’s an American movie. Matthew McConaughey gives the performance of his career (so far) as the real-life Ron Woodroof, a Texas good-old-boy diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. He was supposed to die in 30 days, but he did some research, started smuggling pharmaceuticals not approved by the FDA, and kept himself alive for a long time.

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And not just himself. He sold the drugs to other AIDS sufferers. At first this was purely a for-profit business. Eventually, it became a crusade.

And yes, this is very much a feel-good movie, albeit one that acknowledges that many of the characters will die young. Jared Leto particularly stands out as a dying transvestite whom the initially homophobic Woodroof befriends. Leto’s character, like most of the supporting roles, is fictitious.

Cinematic Romance: My Review of Liv & Ingmar

B Film history documentary

  • Directed by Dheeraj Akolkar

Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann comprise one of the great teams in film history. Their collaborations include Persona, Cries & Whispers, Scenes From a Marriage, and Autumn Sonata. As a romantic couple, they lasted only five years. But their artistic collaboration, and their friendship, lasted nearly 40, until Bergman’s death.

Dheeraj Akolkar tells the story of that romance and friendship (but not much about the collaboration) in this concise, interesting, but flawed 83-minute documentary.

Actually, Akolkar doesn’t really tell the story. He points his camera at Ullmann, and lets her do the talking. We occasionally hear Bergman’s letters to Ullmann, read by an actor, but there’s no question that this is Ullmann’s version of the relationship.

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And no, she doesn’t come off as angry, even though she has good reason to feel that way. The two met in 1965, when the famed director cast her in Persona. She was 25; him, 46. They were both married. But they fell in love on the set, and she became pregnant with his child. They divorced their respective spouses and she moved in with him on his private Scandinavian island.

She never uses the words, but it’s clear from what she says that Bergman was a domineering and abusive lover. He kept a close eye on her and severely restricted her ability to socialize with other people–even the close friends with whom they made great films. He was often cruel to her when shooting those films. That’s all the more shocking considering his reputation for keeping a happy set.

She eventually left him, but they remained friends, and she remained an important member of his repertory company. She became an international star, lived briefly in Hollywood, but was always ready to work for Bergman. She even directed Faithless, a film he wrote late in life.

Hallvard Bræin’s camera spends most of the documentary watching Ullmann’s face , imagestill attractive in her mid-70s, as she talks about her past. She speaks in English, which is odd for a Norwegian film about a Norwegian actor who spent most of her carrier in Sweden.

When we’re not watching today’s Ullmann talk, Akolkar uses clips from Bergman’s film to illustrate the behind-the-camera emotions. For instance, after Ullmann discusses the growing restlessness of their relationship, he shows us a scene (I’m not sure from what movie) where Ullmann and Max von Sydow have an argument at the breakfast table. The technique is effective, but also a little odd. We’re looking at von Sydow and hearing about Bergman.

Akolkar never identifies the films. If you don’t know them, you’re stuck wondering.

Which brings us to Liv & Ingmar‘s biggest flaw: It’s not much interested in Bergman’s and Ullmann’s work. What makes their relationship more interesting than Dick and Jane’s? The fact that they’re Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann. What was it like to be directed by a cinematic icon–especially one who’s also your once-abusive ex-lover? But if Ullmann talked extensively about working together, it all ended up on the cutting room floor.

As the story of a love affair and a long friendship, Liv & Ingmar proves interesting. But it misses the main point. How, in the various stages of their relationship, did they collaborate on such great works of art?

The Once-Great John Sayles Makes a Pretty Good Mystery in Go for Sisters

B Mystery/thriller

  • Written and directed by John Sayles

Back in the 1990s, independent filmmaker John Sayles turned out one great film after another. But he’s been turning out mostly disappointments for a long time now. His latest film, Go for Sisters, didn’t disappoint me, but that’s only because I’ve lowered my expectations about this once-great auteur.

This is Sayles at his most conventional. A pair of mismatched protagonists join forces to find a missing person, with the help of a colorful retired cop. Along the way, they’ll face evil criminals, fire a gun a couple of times, and bond. In all but the details, you’ve seen this film before.

The heroines grew up as best friends but have long ago went their separate ways. Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) is a parole officer, and a tough one. Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) is a recovering drug addict and an ex-con. They’re both lonely.

Then Bernice’s grown son, who hasn’t been returning her calls, becomes a person of interest in a homicide investigation. To make matters worse, he’s disappeared, and there are reasons to believe that he has been hanging out with the wrong crowd. Bernice calls on Fontayne to help her find her son.

But neither of them have any experience with this sort of thing, so a third character is added to the group, a former LAPD detective named Freddy (Edward James Olmos, who also produced the film). He’s clever, funny, knows the underworld, and plays a mean electric guitar. He’s also going blind, a serious problem for this sort of work.

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Their investigation takes them south of the border, primarily into Tijuana. Latin American culture, and its relationship to the USA, has always fascinated Sayles. Consider Lone Star, Men with Guns, and Casa de los babys. This story allows him to dig into that culture’s seamier underbelly.

This is a American movie almost completely lacking in white people. imageBernice and Fontayne are both African American, as are many of the people they have contact with in their day-to-day lives (Fontayne is also gay). Freddy is Hispanic; his parents were both born in Mexico. The villains tend to be either Mexican or Chinese. I don’t recall a single white character important enough to turn up in more than one scene.

Aside from the three leads, we really don’t get to know anyone. Surprising for a Sayles picture, we never get a moment where a minor character reveals something interesting about themselves. Go for Sisters is heavy on plot, and really doesn’t seem interested in all but a few main characters.

I’ve seen all but a couple of his films, and while this isn’t Sayles’ worst (that would be Silver City), it’s certainly his most conventional. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Hollywood genre flicks have their pleasures, and when made by competent filmmakers, are almost always entertaining.

And this one is competently made. The three lead characters are well drawn and interesting. You care about what happens to them and enjoy their company. The story is intriguing, if at times a bit opaque. The dialog is well written and acted, and the violence is kept to a minimum.

It’s still a John Sayles film after all.

Sweet Dreams: Drumming, Ice Cream, and the aftermath of genocide

C+ documentary

  • Directed by Lisa and Rob Fruchtman

This upbeat, everything-turns-out-okay documentary tries to tell three different stories in 84 minutes. While it has its high points, it doesn’t do justice to any of them.

The location, modern-day Rwanda not quite 20 years after the genocide, promises something fascinating and disturbing. In 1994, one of the country’s two major ethnic groups, the Hutus, took part in a massive genocide of the other, the Tutsis. This wasn’t like Germany’s Holocaust, where a special military unit did the killing and civilians could pretend they didn’t know. Vast numbers of Hutus, machetes in hand, searched homes, workplaces, and fields to slaughter their neighbors.

How can a nation heal from something like that? Death toll estimates reach as high a million people–20 percent of the population. More than 100,000 mass murderers are now imprisoned for their crimes. Today’s young Hutu adults, whose parents were murdered and who barely escaped with their lives, must live with young Tutsi adults whose parents are imprisoned for the most horrible of crimes.

What a great subject for a documentary!

But Sweet Dreams is only peripherally about the scars of genocide. It concentrates mostly on drumming and starting Rwanda’s first ice cream parlor. On some level, that’s supposed to be symbolic of the country’s healing.

As such things go, drumming seems a better way to heal a nation than selling ice cream. The drummers belong to Ingoma Nshya, Rwanda’s first and–according to the film–only women’s drumming troupe. They’re a great team, and a lot of fun to watch. And the members of the group becomes the film’s stars, telling their stories of the genocide and their lives afterward.

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But there isn’t all that much drumming in the movie. And I suspect that a lot of drama was left out, as well. For instance, early in the film, Ingoma Nshya founder Kiki Katese explains that drumming had always been a man’s prerogative–forbidden to women. Creating a women’s drumming group was an act of courageous defiance. But as far as what the filmmakers tell us, no one objected. Apparently, not a single male chauvinist remains in Rwanda.

In fact, the Rwanda pictured here seems a paradise of tolerance–pretty good for a country that was convulsed with the worst possible ethnic cleansing less than 20 years before.

So Kiki decides that, in addition to drumming, the group is going to launch, and run, Rwanda’s first ice cream parlor. Most of the people there have never tasted ice cream. She pairs up with the owners of a Brooklyn parlor, and the group starts on their new endeavor. Of course you’re rooting for them, and you can’t help wondering about the difficulties ahead. A mechanical problem on the day before opening provides the film with a suspenseful climax.

Sweet Dreams is at its best when it ignores the rose-colored present and concentrates on the horrible past. The women’s stories horrify. The film’s best sequence takes us to a stadium for a national event recalling and mourning the horrible events. As images of the genocide flash on the jumbotron, people in the audience go into shock and have to be carried out. What are they remembering?

I wanted more of this. I wanted to go into depth about how a country heals after something like that. I wanted sustenance. But for too much of Sweet Dreams’ running time, I just got ice cream.

Great drumming, though.

Sweet Dreams opens Friday in San Francisco and Berkeley. It will also screen Sunday in San Rafael.

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