The Price of Sugar

  • Documentary
  • Written by Bill Haney and Peter Rhodes
  • Directed by Bill Haney

Catch this film if you need another reason to feel guilty about eating sweets.

In fact, catch this film if you care about basic human decency. It’s one of the best documentaries of the year.

Billy Haney’s expose of the Dominican Republic’s sugar industry takes us into a world where illegal immigrants from Haiti effectively become slaves. Kept behind barbed wire and controlled by armed guards, they’re imprisoned on the plantation and paid in vouchers redeemable only at the company store.

Rare for a documentary, The Price of Sugar has a hero: Catholic priest Father Christopher Hartley. The son of a wealthy Englishman and a Spanish aristocrat, Father Christopher seems a strange choice for the part. But he’s determined, compassionate, and if he isn’t fearless, he’s able to master his own fear and not back down in the face of setbacks, propaganda campaigns, and death threats.

He’s also multilingual, articulate, and photogenic.

The conditions he exposes and tries (with moderate success) to change are horrifying. The sugar company smuggles laborers in from over the border and never allows them to leave. Their “pay” scarcely covers their dietary needs. There’s no medical care, and half the adult population has tuberculosis. Anyone who manages to escape is an illegal alien in a country where Haitians are deeply despised.

Haney built his documentary like a suspense movie. As Father Christopher works to help these people, the plantation owners and the government threaten him and run a high-level smear campaign. The climax involves an anti-Hartley, anti-Haitian demonstration that may or may not turn into a riot.

My one complaint. Celebrity narrator Paul Newman adds nothing. Considering how much we hear Father Christopher’s voice, onscreen and off, third-person narration feels superfluous. And Newman sounds so flat and disinterested you can almost see him reading the script.

Besides, it’s a little odd to hear a man who sells cookies talk about the evils of sugar.

Global Lens Series

Somehow I entirely missed the Global Lens series. It opens Thursday at St. John’s with the Indonesian family comedy Of Love and Egg, and runs at various locations–including the Balboa and the Roxie–through November 15. The Global Film Initiative attempts to build understanding between cultures by presenting films from developing countries to American audiences. I’m not sure it does any good, but it does give us a chance to see a wider variety of films.

But the Initiative doesn’t just want us cinephiles to go. They want to expose teenagers to foreign films. To that end, they offer an educational program. If you’re a teacher, click here for information on lesson plans, study guides, and so on.

If you’re not, this is where you’ll find descriptions of the nine films getting screened multiple times this year. To find out where and when they’re screening, click here.

Niles International Film Festival

This weekend the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum runs its three-day Niles International Film Festival. Actually, it would be more accurately titled the Niles European Film Festival, since the six features and seven shorts are all from that particular semi-continent. All films are silent, of course, with piano accompaniment. The George Melies short, “The Impossible Voyage,” will also have live narration.

Speaking of silent films with live narration, it’s too bad they’re not showing any Japanese films (which were shown in their home country with live narration. Japan continued to make silent films well into the 1930’s. Ozu’s masterpiece I was Born, But… came out in 1932; he didn’t make a talkie until 1935.

European as it may be, Niles’ line-up serves up plenty of well-known but seldom-seen fare. I’ve been going to silent films for 35 years, but there’s not a single feature on the list I’ve seen theatrically.

It begins Friday night with Rene Clair’s comedy, The Italian Straw Hat, preceded by the aforementioned “Impossible Voyage”–a hand-colored print.

Saturday is the big day, with Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, Symphony of a Great City starting the festivities off at noon. Then, at 3:15, they’ll screen Alfred Hitchcock’s first movie that feels like an Alfred Hitchcock movie, The Lodger. Then at 7:30 we return to Germany for Fritz Lang’s masterwork, Spies.

Niles moves to colder climes (Denmark and Russia) on Sunday for Dreyer’s Master of the House at 1:00 and Pudovkin’s Mother at 4:00. (That’s Pudovkin’s film Mother; his actual mother will not appear.)

How to Cook Your Life


Written and directed by Doris Dörrie

Cooking and Buddhism make a tasty combination in Doris Dörrie’s documentary. And in the world view of its subject, Edward Espe Brown–Zen master, gourmet chef, and author of The Tassajara Bread Book. The camera does little more than follow Brown as he gives cooking classes, discusses the importance of thinking about what you eat, and drops pearls of wisdom like “If you have a little bit of shit on your nose, everything smells bad.”

Not that Brown comes off as possessing a Buddha-like temperament. He freely admits tendencies to get impatient and angry, and we get to watch him control his frustration as he tries to open a vacuum-wrapped package of cheese. And he’s anything but serene as he realizes that several students aren’t sure they’ve added salt to a mix–you must pay attention to what you’re doing if you want to master breads or zen.

Life is full of troubles, many far worse than leaving out the salt. Brown suggests we roll with them like a duck on the Atlantic (a metaphor he got from his dying mother). And that we try to turn our anger into useful energy.

At 100 minutes, How to Cook Your Life runs a bit long. Near the end, I found myself checking my watch in a far-from-Zen mindset. But when I left the theater, I wanted to renounce junk food and spend the rest of my life eating only wholesome foods made from scratch.

Lust, Caution

  • Period thriller
  • Written by James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang, from a story by Eileen Chang
  • Directed by Ang Lee

For an independent filmmaker, Ang Lee sure knows his basic commercial genres–knows them well enough to shake them up, spin them around, and turn them on their head. He’s turned the kung fu flick into romantic tragedy (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), made the American Civil War a new experience (Ride with the Devil), and examined homosexuality through the prisms of the marriage comedy (The Wedding Banquet) and the western (Brokeback Mountain). Ironically, he took his one big fall when he tried his hand at big-budget Hollywood genre fare with The Hulk.

He doesn’t alter the conventions of the Hitchcockian thriller much in Lust, Caution, and I can’t discuss these alternations without giving away too much of the story. But he deepens those conventions, turning the thriller into a study of a young woman (newcomer Wei Tang as Wang Jiazhi) who must turn herself into someone she is not in order to seduce a man and set him up for assassination.

Her target (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) is a monster, but he’s a very human monster. Collaborating with the Japanese occupation of China (the film is set from 1938 through 1942), he oversees the torture of political prisoners. And while he never appears to regret his actions, there’s a sense that they’re taking a psychic toll. He’s cold, remote, and emotionally cut off from those around him. No wonder he falls for the beautiful young woman who comes into his life.

Yes, the plot sounds a bit like Notorious. There’s even a Cary Grant equivalent in the handsome young idealist who sends the heroine on her journey despite their mutual but unspoken love. I doubt it was an accident. When Wang Jiazhi enters a movie house (something she doesn’t often in the picture–a woman after my own heart), we see Grant on a poster for Hitchcock’s Suspicion. And Lee pays homage to the one good scene in Torn Curtain, when the amateur spies discover just how difficult it is to kill a human being.

Because of it’s NC-17 rating, all critics reviewing Lust, Caution must discuss the sex. That rating is earned by two very graphic sex scenes late in the picture. An R-rated version would have been an inferior Lust, Caution–we learn something about these characters and their changing relationship through the explicit nature of these scenes. Are they erotic? A little bit. But they are very revealing–in the emotional sense of the word.

If you go to Lust, Caution looking for arousal, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you go looking for a compelling story, insightful characters, an introduction to a time and place outside of your own experience, and masterful filmmaking, you’ll get more than your money’s worth.

The Valley of This Week’s Recommendations and Warnings

Presenting my first weekly Recommendations & Warnings Report created without benefit of weekly schedules.

New rule: I will no longer list films in wide release–even art-house wide release. This list will only include calendar screenings (a day to a week in one theater) very limited releases playing in only a couple of theaters.

Valley of the Heart’s Delight, Camera 7 Cinemas. San Jose; Grand Lake, Oakland, opens Friday. I hate saying anything bad about a locally-made independent film struggling to get national distribution. Based very loosely on historical events, Valley of the Heart’s Delight details the circumstances leading to the lynching of two kidnapping/murder suspects in San Jose in 1933. The lynching occurred with the active or passive endorsement of just about everyone who should have stopped it, from the local sheriff to the Governor of California. Writer/Producer John Miles Murphy believes the suspects were innocent, and has turned his theories into a work of fiction with completely original characters. Cinematographer Hiro Narita, Production Designer Douglas Freeman, and Costume Designer Cathleen Edwards all do a remarkable job creating 1933 San Jose out of modern day Bay Area locations and very little money. Unfortunately, Murphy and director Tim Boxell fail to fill that world with real people. Click here for my full review.

Bedazzled, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. As members of Beyond the Fringe, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore helped lay the comic groundwork for Monty Python. In the one movie that truly belongs to them (they wrote and starred), Cook plays Satan to Moore’s pathetic, working-class Faust in what is probably the funniest version of the classic tragedy. Bedazzled doesn’t always work, but it’s best moments–especially the leaping nuns–rate as classics. Directed by Stanley (Singin’ in the Raiin) Donen, and not to be confused with the remake. Part of the Archive’s Look Back at England: The British New Wave series.

If . . ., Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:05. It’s been entirely too long since I’ve seen Lindsay Anderson’s tale of rebellious students in a British boarding school, but I loved it when my own education was still a recent memory. I don’t think this picture could be made in our post-Columbine society. Another part of the Archive’s Look Back at England: The British New Wave series.

The Valerie Project, Rafael, Wednesday, 8:00; Castro, Thursday, 8:00. Even
though I was in high school when “Jaromil Jires’ 1970 coming of age fantasy film” Valerie and Her Week of Wonders came out, I’d never heard of it until I read the Castro’s schedule. Judging from that description, it sounds bizarre and entertaining–a luminous dream narrative laden with vampires, doppelgangers, sinister characters and shimmering maidens.” Both the Rafael and the Castro are presenting a new 35mm print with live accompaniment (that’s right, live accompaniment for a 1970 movie) by a 10 piece ensemble, culled from members of Espers, Fern Knight, Woodwose, and Fursaxa.

The Cat and the Canary, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, 8:00; Saturday, 7:30. Americans in the 1920s just couldn’t take haunted houses seriously. But they sure enjoyed laughing at them. Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charley Bowers all made very funny short subjects about them. And this feature, never intended to be taken seriously,provides plenty of good laughs as well. A fun way to get into the Halloween spirit. Friday night, David Giovacchini and the Tricks of the Light Orchestra will accompany the feature and additional shorts; Saturday night, Niles and PFA stable Judy Rosenberg will do the honors on the piano.

The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963–1965, Rafael, matinees Friday through Sunday. Held over! There have been plenty of Bob Dylan documentaries, and several concert film where Bob Dylan made an appearance, but not nearly enough films that simply catch him in performance. A record of Dylan’s performances at the 1963, ’64, and ’65 Newport Folk Festivals, The Other Side of the Mirror is a portrait of the artist as an evolving young man. In ’63, he’s so nervous that Joan Baez has to help him tune is guitar, and all of his songs are overtly political. By ’64 he’s commanding the stage and mixing the politics with the metaphysical issues of Mr. Tambourine Man. And in his legendary 1965 performance, he blew the lid off the entire folk scene (and offended most of his fans) by bringing the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on stage and rocking out. I’ve read about Dylan’s folk years from many sources; but there’s nothing like watching them–without narration or an overt viewpoint of the 21st century. You have to be a real Bob Dylan fan to love this movie, but since I’m a very real Bob Dylan fan, I’m giving it an A.

Winterland, Camera 12, San Jose, Friday, 9:30; California Theater, Berkeley, Sunday, 7:00. This quiet, low-key drama about Kurds in Norway examines a marriage off to a very bad start. Renas (Raouf Saraj) has been living in the rural north long enough to be comfortable and friendly with his Norwegian co-workers, although outside of work, his social life appears centered on other Kurds. Then he brings over a wife he never met from the old country (Shler Rahnoma as Fermesk). Neither of them have been exactly honest in their letters and phone calls. What’s more, the vast, cold, empty, but beautiful landscape alienates and depresses Fermesk. Slowly, with anger and difficulty, they have to work things out. Because of its short, 52-minute length, the Arab Film Festival will screen Winterland with Iraq, the Song of the Missing Men on Friday and with Rise and Shine and Rabia’s Journey on Sunday.

Click here for descriptionVHS – Kahloucha, Camera 12, San Jose, Saturday, 9:30; California Theater, Berkeley, Sunday, 3:30. This Making of documentary gets off to a slow start, but it grows on you. It’s subject is Mouncef Kahloucha, a Tunisian action movie auteur whose budgets make Roger Corman look like Cecil B. DeMille. We follow Kahloucha as he gathers friends and neighbors together to work on his latest opus, Tarzan of the Arabs, which, judging from the scenes we see, is every bit as silly as the name implies. He even distributes the completed masterwork himself, by renting his three or four copies to neighbors. The man appears to have no talent whatsoever, but his chutzpah wins you over. Part of the Arab Film Festival.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00, Sunday, 5:00. I’m not entirely sure why Universal’s 1948 genre mash-up remains so popular. Yes, it combines the studio’s massively successful comedians with the three most popular monsters on the back lot. But I’ve never been a huge Abbott and Costello fan, and the monsters were definitely running out of steam by the late 40’s. But it has enough laughs to avoid being a complete loss.

Cinema Paradiso, Cerrito, Thursday, 9:15. I haven’t seen this love letter to the movies in many years. I remember loving the first half and feeling bored and indifferent in the second half. In other words, I liked the kid, but found the teenager annoying. I should also point out that I haven’t seen the director’s cut (which I assume they’re showing), but I’ve read that it primarily adds more to the part I didn’t like. Nevertheless, it seems like a nice way to celebrate the Cerrito’s one-year anniversary.

The Monastery: Mr. Vig & The Nun, Roxie, opens Friday. A crusty old bachelor offers his castle to the Russian Orthodox Church for a monastery, then has to contend with a feisty nun. The plot of this documentary sounds like a sitcom. It might have made a good one, but it’s just not an interesting documentary. For one thing, it never really explains the old man’s relationship to the Church–spiritual, emotional, legal, and financial. The Monastery has a few funny scenes, and some moments of insight about this man’s loneliness, but not enough to fill a third of its 84 minutes.

The Lost Boys, Aquarius, Friday and Saturday, midnight. A clever and funny, and even occasionally scary teenage vampire movie shot in Santa Cruz. What do you do when peer pressure tells you to become an immortal bloodsucker? Hey, all the cool kids are doing it.

Al Gore Alert

I just found this out:

Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater will screen An Inconvenient Truth all day today as a benefit for I’m not sure how I feel about the draft Gore campaign, but when a guy wins an Oscar, Emmy, and Noble Prize in the same year, he probably should win the Presidency, as well.

(Actually, I’m surprised that the Supreme Court hasn’t stepped in and insisted that Gore’s  Oscar, Emmy, and Noble Prize really belong to George W. Bush.)