Stealing Children

What does it mean when three movies with similar but unusual subjects come out almost simultaneously? Are they tapping into something in the national psyche? Not if they’re from different countries.

So far this year, three films about parent-baby separation hit Bay Area theaters. In each one, a criminal deprives a mother of her baby. Two involve car-jacking. Is this a new fear, effecting the people in South Africa, Belgium, and the United States?

I haven’t seen the American film, Freedomland, so I’ll refrain from commenting on it. The Belgian film, L’Enfant, is very good. The South African one, Tsotsi, is the best new film I’ve seen so far this year. It deservedly won the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar.

Tsotsi is so good it’s difficult to watch. Writer/director Gavin Hood asks for no sympathy for the violent young thug at the film’s center (Presley Chweneyagae), even as he shows you the dire poverty that created this scary young man. Early in the film, he highjacks a car, shooting a woman in the stomach. Then he discovers a baby in the back seat. The thug has no idea what to do, so he finds himself caring for the child, and slowly, he begins to soften. This is a tense, scary, vicious, yet ultimately beautiful film about humanity and redemption. It’s playing around the Bay Area.

L’Enfant isn’t in Tsotsi‘s class, but it’s still very good. A petty thief (Jérémie Renier) with no sense of morality or responsibility–in fact, no sense–sells his own baby on the black market, then is caught off-guard when his girlfriend reacts violently. Everything goes downhill for him from there. This is not the sort of foreign-language “art” film that crosses over and appeals to conventional movie-goers. Shot in long, hand-held takes and almost entirely devoid of music, L’Enfant doesn’t even give us a sympathetic protagonist. But watching this young man dig himself deeper into a pit of his own making is endlessly fascinating–at least until the ending stretches our credibility.

L’Enfant opens Friday around the Bay Area. If you don’t care to see it, here are some other films worth seeing–or at least worth talking about:

Recommended, with Reservations: Ice Age: The Meltdown, Presidio, ongoing. Not in the same class as Shrek or The Incredibles, or even of the first Ice Age movie, but still an entertaining diversion for an afternoon with the kids. The best scenes (which have nothing to do with the rest of the movie) involve skrat, a sort of proto-squirrel who may be computer animation’s answer to Wile Coyote.

Noteworthy: EarthDance: The Short-Attention Span Environmental Film Festival, Oakland Museum of California, Friday, different shows at 6:00 and 8:00. Every year I tell myself I’m going to make the EarthDance festival; one of these years I will. Aimed at environmentalists who like their propaganda short and light, EarthDance presents two collections of short films, many of them whimsical in nature, about our planet’s precarious condition.

Noteworthy: Harold and Maude, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. After Woodstock, this comedy about a young man and a much older woman is the ultimate statement of the hippie generation. I loved it passionately in the 1970’s. But I haven’t seen it in a long time and I’m not sure how well it’s aged.

Noteworthy: 65 Seconds That Shook the Earth, Pacific Film Archive, Friday through Sunday. The PFA has a creative, and, I expect, entertaining series this weekend to mark the 1906 earthquake centennial. Among the highlights are Flame of Barbary Coast, a John Wayne western that climaxes with the big one, a presentation of archival footage of the disaster’s aftermath, and the 1974 disaster movie Earthquake, presented with a recreation of its original Sensurround process. The series closes Sunday with a 1957 cheapie called The Night the World Exploded, with Dr. Peggy Hellweg of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory discussing “the [film’s] scientific veracity.”

Not Recommended: Adam & Steve, Castro, opening Friday for one-week run. Craig Chester (who also wrote and directed) and Malcolm Gets make an attractive-enough couple as two gay men falling in love, but their chemistry can’t carry a picture that’s almost entirely lacking in conflict. And thus, also deficient in story, drama, and humor. When conflict finally arrives in time for a third act, it feels contrived–even though it was telegraphed at the beginning. With it’s New York setting, Jew/WASP romance, and mixture of the realistic and the absurd, Adam & Steve clearly wants to be a gay Annie Hall, but Chester lacks Woody Allen’s ability to bring diverse elements together and make them all work–or even just to make them funny.

Recommended, with Reservations: Sir! No Sir!, Red Vic, opening Friday for one week. Today’s mythology vilifies Vietnam-era protesters for mistreating returning veterans. David Zeiger attempts to put the record straight, using old footage and new interviews to remind us that it was the soldiers fighting that war and the veterans coming home who started the anti-war movement. There’s nothing exceptional here as filmmaking, and the picture never really hooks you on an emotional level. Still, we’d do a lot of good if we could get people to see Sir! No Sir! who don’t already agree with it’s message.

Recommended: Match Point, Balboa, open-ended engagement starts Friday. The opening and closing credits have that distinct Woody Allen look, and one plot twist may remind you of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but nothing else in this very British class-and-sex drama looks like a creation of its auteur. And while it’s no Annie Hall, this tale of a social-climbing tennis pro who lusts too much for another gold digger is probably Allen’s best in 20 years.

Recommended: The Art of Ray Harryhausen, Rafael, Saturday, 7:00. Model animator Ray Harryhausen occupies a unique place in film history; he’s the only special effects technician who is both an auteur and a star. He’s an auteur because no matter who wrote and directed, his films reflect his vision. And he’s a star because his name has marquee value. Now retired, Harryhausen will discuss his designs and illustrations, then present a restored print of the first and best of Ray Harryhausen’s three Sinbad movies, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.. Of all his movies, only Jason and the Argonauts is better.

Recommended, with Reservations: Forbidden Planet, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. Nothing dates faster than futuristic fiction, and with its corny dialog and spaceship crewed entirely by white males, Forbidden Planet is very dated. But MGM’s 1956 sci-fi extravaganza still holds considerable pleasures. The Cinemascope/Eastmancolor art direction is pleasing to the eye, Robby the Robot is adorable, and the story–involving a long-dead mystery race of super-beings–still packs some genuine thrills. It’s also an interesting precursor to Star Trek.