Monday, November 29, 2010


What a rare pleasure to see a big American corporation—a movie studio, no less—make a business decision so smart the whole company roars back from the brink of disaster. I’m talking about Walt Disney Animation Studios, which had the unusually good sense, back in 2006, not just to buy out Pixar but to put its brilliant chief executive, John Lasseter, in charge of all Disney animation. (As Fortune magazine wrote at the time, “It's as if Nemo swallowed the whale.”)

Since then, Lasseter has overseen the creation of WALL-E, Up, The Princess and the Frog, Toy Story 3, and now Tangled for his new bosses. All with richly detailed backgrounds and dramatic lighting and simulated camera anglesm all heartfelt yet light on their feet, the new Disney animations are uninfected by the easy irony and crippling self-awareness that ruins so many children’s movies these days.

Tangled simply offers an updated—and refreshingly girl-power-infused—take on the classic tale of Rapunzel, a girl imprisoned for years in a tower by an enchantress who took her from her parents. The original tale ends with a rescue by a passing prince, but this version is narrated, in a laidback voiceover, by Flynn Rider (voiced by Zachary Levi), an orphan turned thief who sweeps Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) off her feet—after she knocks him off his own two or three times, with the help of an iron skillet.

The business with the frying pan is part of a wide vein of slapstick humor that runs through the movie, most of it at the expense of the initially too-cocky Flynn. There is also plenty of subtler humor, like Rapunzel’s initial awkwardness when she first ventures out of the tower where she’s spent virtually her whole life.

Funny, action-packed, and as unpretentiously charming as its heroine, Tangled is packed with the Broadway-style songs that Disney used to excel at, which Lasseter brought back with The Princess and the Frog. One of them (“Mother Knows Best”) that would fit right into Gypsy.

The film also has some classic Disney-style funny-animal sidekicks—both Pascal, a chameleon who is Rapunzel’s only friend until she meets Flynn, and Maximus, a proud palace horse that first hounds and then befriends Flynn. More bloodhound than horse and more scornful big brother than either, Maximum doesn’t talk any more than Pascal does, but they both communicate loud and clear.

The relationship between Rapunzel and the “mother” who kidnapped her as an infant and keeps her locked up in the tower is unusually sophisticated for a Disney movie, which may be why Gothel (Donna Murphy), the false mother, announces heavily, on a couple occasions, that she’ll be the bad guy if that’s what Rapunzel wants…. Those asides are nicely handled, funny enough to entertain the adults and older kids and probably helpful to the little ones, who might otherwise get confused by how often Gothel hugs and kisses Rapunzel or says how much she loves her. Her displays of affection fool Rapunzel too, for a while, but they’re ultimately just part of a classic narcissist’s bid for total control.

That probably went right over the heads of the little kids who made up most of the audience I saw the movie with, like the floating lanterns they reached for when the magic of 3D made them seem to float right there—just in front of them and a little to the left. But if Rapunzel’s relationship with Gothel and the budding romance between Rapunzel and Flynn went over the little kids’ heads, neither kept them from getting lost in the movie, or from tumbling happily out of the theater afterward, still enfolded by invisible clouds of joy.

Tangled has the look and feel of Disney classics like Lady and the Tramp, thanks to its generally light, bright colors and the exaggerated, doll-like features and skin and physiques of its human and animal characters. I saw it in 3D, but I wouldn’t feel obligated to if I were you. Aside from those lanterns and one risky jump by Maximus, the added dimension was never essential—or even particularly important—to the enjoyment of the picture.

Tangled is pure, unadulterated, innocent fun, a return to the best of classic Disney--only better, since it’s free of the sexism and racism that you have to overlook in a lot of the old movies. No wonder these Disney animators did such a good job of showing us Rapunzel’s dizzy glee when she first got free of that tower: They must know just how she felt.

And now we just need to figure out what’s going on at Pixar. I mean, really guys: a sequel to Cars???

Written for TimeOFF

Fair Game

I’m glad Fair Game got made, and I’m glad I saw it, but I wish it were a better movie.

It’s easy to imagine why director Doug Liman might have wanted to make a film about the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts, pictured above with Plame) by her own government. Like a real-life version of the Angelina Jolie character in Liman’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Plame was a beautiful, tough, ingenious spy masquerading as an ordinary working woman (The first half hour or so of the film shows Plame at work, offering an intriguing window into the world of an undercover CIA agent). In fact, Plame’s story may be even more incredible than the fictional Smith’s.

It all started, as Fair Game shows us, when Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), wrote a New York Times editorial challenging a story the Bush administration was telling about Iraq stockpiling supplies for building nukes. That claim had helped pave the way for the then-recent U.S. invasion of Iraq, so Wilson’s report challenged the entire premise for our presence there. To divert attention from his editorial, White House insiders set out to undermine Wilson’s credibility, claiming he was an unemployed hack the CIA had sent to investigate rumors about nuclear materials only because his wife, a CIA agent, arranged the trip to give him something to do. Someone in the White House fed that story to Robert Novak, and he told the world in a Washington Post column.

The leak blew Plame’s cover to smithereens, costing her her job, compromising every mission she was involved in, and endangering the lives of her informants. Along with the ad hominen attacks that went with it, it also exposed Wilson and Plame to a media mob, anonymous death threats, public denunciations, and snide character assassinations by TV talking heads.

Based on the books the two wrote about the episode (Wilson’s was The Politics of Truth; Plame’s was Fair Game), the film cleaves tightly to the couple’s perspective on the episode and its aftermath. That point of view winds up being both the movie’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

Sean Penn is well cast as the staunchly self-righteous Wilson, and Watts (pictured above, at right, with Plame) is excellent as the steely but sensitive Plame. Their household feels like a real home, their two young children always audible in the background and often popping up to demand attention. Their marriage feels lived-in too, full of authentic touches like Plame’s stiff posture as she stops on her way out the door for a quick fight about how estranged they’ve become (“All we’ve been doing is leaving Post-Its for each other,” Wilson tells her), or the look two exchange at a DC dinner party while other guests blow hard about the fictional nuclear materials.

But by putting the couple’s increasingly strained marriage at the heart of the story, Fair Game unintentionally trivializes its subject. It’s as if the worst thing about the Bush administration’s willingness to throw one of its own agents and her informants under the bus—not to mention its refusal to let facts get in the way of its pre-determined plan to invade Iraq, the philosophy behind its betrayal of Plame—was that it interfered with the happiness of the Plame-Wilson household.

Liman, who served as his own cinematographer, overuses the shaky handheld camera that gave his Bourne Identity so much of its nervous energy. It often seems annoyingly egregious here, especially in a meeting in Plame’s drab CIA office building, where dizzying blurred pans and low-angle shots strain to add drama to the sight of people sitting at a conference table.

But the biggest disappointment is the ending, a corny climax in which a canned-sounding speech Wilson delivers about the need to “defend your freedom” is intercut with heroic footage of Watts marching to testify at a Senate hearing on her case. As Liman cuts from Watts to Plame herself, showing us video of her actual testimony as the end credits roll, what should have been a stirring ending fizzles out to the sound of Plame’s stiff, sing-song speech.

Fair Game got me riled up all over again about what happened to Wilson and Plame, but it didn’t add anything to my understanding of what they accomplished. What did their battle mean, in the end—not to their marriage but to our democracy, our freedom of speech, and our national security? Maybe Liman just wanted to ask the question, but I would have liked the movie better if it had provided some answers.

Written for TimeOFF

Monday, November 22, 2010

Holiday Movie Roundup

All that time spent with relatives you don’t see all that often; all those year-end movies crowding into the theater in hopes of nabbing an Oscar nomination. No wonder Thanksgiving weekend draws some of the biggest movie crowds of the year. I’ve been thinking about what I might see with my out-of-towners, so I thought I’d tell you about some movies I’ve seen recently that your clan might enjoy.

127 Hours is an ideal movie to see with your family – as long it doesn’t include anyone too young or too squeamish. Director Danny Boyle’s trademark kinetic whoosh made being down and strung out in Glasgow feel as exhilaratingly perilous (Trainspotting) as running from voracious zombies (28 Days Later). He lost me with Slumdog Millionaire, which sentimentalized poverty and made it look too easily escaped, but the director found his perfect subject – and vice versa – in 127 Hours. Closely based on the story of Aron Ralston, a hiker who got pinned down by a boulder while alone in a Utah canyon and wound up amputating his own arm to escape, 127 Hours is a film about a man slowly dying in a narrow crevice that moves as thrillingly fast as Ralston (James Franco) does when he first hits the trail, pedaling his mountain bike as if his legs were pistons.

Franco’s blinding charisma, intelligence, and seemingly bottomless energy do a lot of the work in this movie, since he’s in almost every frame. But Boyle and his coscreenwriter Simon Beaufoy (they based the script on Ralston’s book) also keep the adrenaline pumping, pulling us out of that crevice or filling it up with a series of vivid flashbacks and visions. The stark beauty of the landscape and the near-hallucinogenic brightness of the sun add to the intensity, as does the tension of knowing what’s coming, which becomes almost unbearable when Franco enacts the drawn-out act of sawing through stubborn flesh and electric nerves with a dull pocket knife.

127 Hours is partly the story of a straightforward physics problem that was encountered, puzzled over for a time, and ultimately solved by an ingenious and unflappable engineer – a problem that just happened to involve his own body. But it gives you more than the shivery thrill of a rubbernecker passing a wreck because it also offers a window into the mind of a young man at a crucial turning point. Ralston didn’t just lose his right hand in that crevice; he shed his adolescent fantasy of immortality and realized what really mattered to him. Those flashbacks and hallucinations, and the tender goodbyes and confessions Ralston taped on his camcorder, some of which Franco reconstructs, show us how Ralston’s love for his family and friends saved his life.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is also a kind of family story, since the Harry Potter series is in part about the families we create for ourselves when our families of origin fail us. Harry is an orphan who found his home in Hogwarts, in the comradeship of his best friends Hermione and Ron, and in the chaotic warmth of the Beasley household. In this film, Hermione becomes a kind of orphan too, making the heartbreaking decision to erase all memories of her from the minds of her Muggle parents, in order to keep them safe from Voldemort’s crusade against “mudblood” contamination of the wizard world.

The Harry Potter films started with two entries by director Chris Columbus, whose open-mouthed reaction shots, melodramatic soundtracks and sometimes hokey special effects drained the story of the wit, social awareness, and genuine sense of peril and wonder that infuse J.K. Rowling’s books. Then Alfonso Cuarón’s The Prisoner of Azkaban restored the story’s subtleties and underlying seriousness to the screen, setting a tone that the films have more or less maintained ever since.

Deathly Hallows: Part 1, the beginning of the end of the series, is directed by David Yates. Yates also helmed The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince, and he has the sense – and the very Harry-ish humility – to list Azkaban as his favorite of the series. As befits a cautionary tale about fascism in which the forces of evil are poised to take over the world, his latest installment is literally as well as figuratively dark, shot almost entirely at night or under operatically gloomy CGI thunderclouds. The wraiths, dark wizards, basilisks and other assorted riffraff that are spreading across the land to do Lord Voldemort’s bidding are appropriately chilling, and the emotions Harry and his friends wrestle with feel viscerally real as the three “go to ground,” leaving the no-longer-safe havens of Hogwarts and the Beasley’s house to devote themselves to defeating Voldemort.

As always, the three young actors who play the main parts are just the right age, since the nine years that have passed since the first film closely mirror the seven years that elapsed in the books. It’s been lovely to watch them grow up and grow into their roles – particularly Emma Watson, who used to be too stiff as Hermione. This time she really feels like the emotional glue at the center of Harry’s surrogate family.

If you have young kids to entertain, you might try Megamind. I’m out of space, so I’ll just say it’s a welcome twist on the superhero genre: self-aware enough to tweak what needs tweaking (starting with the notion that good guys are all good and bad guys all bad) but true enough to its audience to honor the conventions that count, making us care about the characters and giving them all happy endings. The animation is clever and often beautiful (I particularly loved a scene of Megamind welding), and Megamind’s overly complicated inventions, his endearingly clumsy attempts at bad-guy banter, and the bumbling protégé he turns into a nemesis by mistake are all pretty funny.

Written for TimeOFF

Monday, November 15, 2010


The more I learned about the hell in store if the runaway train in Unstoppable hit the sharp curve it was barreling toward without slowing down, the more I feared for the good people of Stanton, Pennsylvania. This train weighs 10 million pounds and is going over 70 mph? It’s carrying 30,000 gallons of a toxic chemical so combustible the train’s essentially “a missile the size of the Chrysler building,” as Connie (Rosario Dawson), the righteous railyard operator, informs her greedhead boss? And the S curve it’s headed for is not only smack in the middle of Stanton but directly over a series of fuel tanks? Good God, people, run for your lives! Don’t you know you’re in a Tony Scott movie? There is no way he could resist setting off a fireball that awesome.

Few living directors whip up a frappe of things going really fast and things blowing up better than Scott. He makes the train look pretty fast (though rarely scarily so) mostly by showing it in a series of quick takes that are often shot from different angles and sometimes blurred. And he makes it feel huge and, well, unstoppable, by pounding away at our eardrums with a steady barrage of heavily amplified chugs and squeals and an operatic score by Hans Zimmer protégé Harry Gregson-Williams.

The actual runaway train that inspired the film barreled through Ohio in 2001 for more than two hours before being stopped by three engineers, who were sent by the company that owned the train. Unstoppable turns the company’s internal debate over how to stop it into that time-honored movie triangle: a clash between a heroic inside-the-system worker (Dawson’s Connie), an arrogant corporate bigwig (Connie’s boss Galvin, played by Kevin Dunn), and a Dirty Harry-style rogue operator (Denzel Washington’s Frank) who bonds with the heroic worker to Get the Job Done. Dawson and Washington are enormously appealing actors who know how to hold our attention, but their personal magnetism is trumped by the cliché-ridden script. The same goes for Chris Pine, who plays the rookie Frank is teaching and sparring with – until they learn about the runaway train and bond to save the day.

The film starts slowly, alternating elementary character development with the start of the train’s journey, but the pace picks up once the chase is on. Even when there’s nothing more dramatic going on than a phone call, the camera swirls around restlessly, circling like a hyperactive pup, and when the train finally hits that S curve, it careens like something out of Looney Tunes. Rapid cuts between scenes also keep the energy level high – and the characters underdeveloped.

Two near-collisions are so close they almost cross the line from dramatic to comic, including one with a train full of schoolkids on a field trip to learn about (oh, the irony) train safety. A failed attempt to stop the train, which we know from the start is doomed because it was cooked up by Connie’s boss, ends in the inevitable fireball. Meanwhile, we get the required dose of skin from Frank’s gorgeous daughters when we catch up with them at work – at Hooters, where they bend over compliantly for the camera before watching dad’s heroics on TV. (That TV coverage may be the most improbable part of the movie: Fox newscasters broadcast every fact accurately and practically instantly, apparently hearing what’s going on the minute the train company’s managers have figured it out.)

The second half of this movie kept reminding me of Buster Keaton’s The General, a brilliantly choreographed train chase movie that’s also much more. The stunts in The General aren’t there just to give you a visceral thrill, though they do that too. They also make you fear for a character you care about, and they make you laugh – at things as serious as war or as silly as Buster’s girlfriend’s inability to stoke the train’s steam engine.

Conveying the thrill of things going fast or exploding is an important part of the craft of making action movies, but the art is in the storytelling. Without a character we care about or a plot beyond the basic need to stop a runaway train, all the rushing around in Unstoppable is just so much commotion.

Written for TimeOFF

Monday, November 8, 2010

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

I always want to like Aviva Kempner’s movies. For one thing, her stepfather and my dad were great friends when we were kids in Detroit. For another, she makes films about Jews in America, a topic that interests me. But I haven’t managed to fall for one of her movies since her first, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.

In the DVD commentary for Yoo-Hoo, Kempner says her beat is “films about under-known Jewish heroes.” That description surely fits Greenberg, one of baseball’s few Jewish stars, but I wouldn’t call Senator Joseph Lieberman, the subject of her second short film, either under-known or a hero. As for the creative force behind Molly Goldberg, a fictional Jewish earth mother who was popular on radio and TV for nearly three decades, I might buy “under-known,” since Gertrude Berg’s fame has faded faster than that of contemporaries like Lucille Ball or Jack Benny. But a hero? Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg tries to canonize Berg as an inspirational proto-feminist, but the evidence it offers is thin and sometimes contradictory.

Kempner’s 20-minute 2002 short, Today I Vote for My Joey, implied that the worst thing about Al Gore’s loss in the 2000 presidential election was that it prevented Lieberman from becoming America’s first Jewish vice president. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg suffers from the same tunnel vision, too interested in whether Berg’s shows were good for the Jews to ask whether they were good, period. Was her show as groundbreaking as this film would have us believe? One of the talking heads, an author who wrote a biography of Berg, calls her show “the first successful television situation comedy,” and another implies that Berg invented the convention of people bursting through the door to juice up a fading storyline. But even if that convention was new to TV, it had been alive and kicking in theatrical farces for hundreds of years before Molly Goldberg was born.

Some of the shorter clips we see from the show – especially the ads Berg wrote and delivered in character as Molly – feel faux-folksy, and the longest and best excerpt is just a pleasant bit of pop pablum, though it’s taken from what the voiceover says is one of her best episodes. So the only thing that makes this forgotten show seem worth remembering is the case Kempner makes for giving Americans its first prototype of a warm, wise, halfway Americanized Jewish mother.

The film outlines Berg’s personal history as well, but that too is quickly glossed over reveal much. We learn almost nothing about the relationships she maintained with her real-life husband and children while working so hard to play the perfect mother (she was the sole writer as well as the star on a show that started out weekly and went daily for a while). There are a few hints at a Joan Crawford-like gap between Berg’s broadcast persona and her real self, including speculation that Molly was the mother Berg had always wished for, since her own mother was mentally unstable and wound up in an institution. Apparently she was a terrible cook, too, though she thought she was good – and even published a cookbook, under Molly’s name (her coauthor, cookbook writer Myra Waldo, may have done the real work).

Berg was obviously driven, but to do what exactly? The talking heads and Kempner’s voiceover laud her as a proto-feminist pioneer as well as a Jewish role model, but her sentimental show didn’t appear to be interested in launching any Roseanne-style assaults on cultural beachheads. Kempner stresses the courage it took Berg to stage a Seder at the Goldbergs’ and have someone throw a rock through their window after the horror of Kristallnacht, but she doesn’t mention how rarely Berg took stands like that. According to a 2000 editorial in the Dallas Morning News, Berg generally steered clear of "anything that will bother people ... unions, fund raising, Zionism, socialism, intergroup relations. ... I keep things average. I don't want to lose friends."

Kempner alternates between talking heads, clips from the show and from an interview Edward R. Murrow did with Berg, and generic archival footage, like the shot of Variety’s Wall Street Lays an Egg headline that clues us into the 1929 stock market crash that preceded Berg’s radio debut by two months. Berg’s biographer and a couple of her relatives provide some personal information while the rest of the talking heads, who include Susan Stamberg and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, talk about what the show meant to them and their families when they were young.

The best bits are from the Murrow interview, but none of it goes very deep and the contradictions that emerge in the narrative go unexplored. After all the talk about the show’s positive portrayal of a prototypical (if idealized) Jewish family, what are we to make of the African American journalist who says: “Listening to Molly Goldberg, you didn’t think about religion or ethnicity. You thought about family.” And was Berg’s set a warm and nurturing place, as one person says, or was she the mercurial and demanding tyrant others report on the job?

Looks like Gertrude Berg will have to remain under-known.

Written for TimeOFF 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Outside the Law

Outside the Law is the latest in a growing body of good to great movies that explore the causes and effects of terrorism. Like Terror’s Advocate, Paradise Now, Day Night Day Night, Munich, The Baader Meinhof Complex, Army of Shadows (which was made in 1969 but not released here until 2006), and, most recently, Carlos, Outside the Law is interested less in the victims of terrorist acts than in the people who commit them. What makes them turn to violence? How does it change them? And, above all, do their ends justify their means? (An interesting sidebar to this exchange was this year’s Mesrine, an overlong gangster story distinguished by an excellent cast and a nicely sardonic take on our fascination with terrorists. Its title character is a real-life two-bit sociopath who saw himself—and, for a while, got the starry-eyed media to portray him—as a revolutionary idealist committing acts of terror against the capitalist state, since that sounds so much cooler and more important than robbing banks for a living.)

Outside the Law writer-director Rachid Bouchareb wants us to see how blurry the line is between the acts we define as terrorism and the horrors committed by nation-states and accepted by most of us as an inevitable byproduct of the police actions and prison systems and wars and political maneuvers that prop up the status quo. Carlos does something similar, but where that movie explores the symbiotic relationship between the two, tracing the vast network of not-quite-officially warring nations that were eager to hire its subject to carry out their clandestine commands, Outside the Law’s unaffiliated terrorists are locked in mortal combat with the state-sponsored killers whose methods they have adopted.

Time and again, Bouchareb shows us the French committing brutal acts of repression while helpless Algerians watch in horror. The story begins in Algeria in 1925, with the theft of a family’s land by the French colonizers who were then seizing farms owned by Algerians and giving them to European settlers. ("May God punish them," says the father, a prayer that we sense will be answered.) The displaced family includes three brothers who stand for a range of Algerian reactions to French oppression: Said (Jamel Debbouze) just wants to live large and run the boxing gym that is "my real place," Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) is a righteous Malcolm X figure devoted to avenging his people, and Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) is a reluctant recruit who lets his brother pull him into the revolution because he believes in the cause, but is sickened by the killing he’s called on to do.

Outside the Law pointedly highlights tactics often associated with terrorists from Arab-speaking countries to show us their European roots. The only beheading we see is of an Algerian political prisoner, who is guillotined "in the name of the French republic" while a horrified Abdelkader looks on, and the unarmed civilians who are killed en masse are peaceful demonstrators slaughtered by colonial gunmen as they march for Algerian independence.

Bouchareb’s last movie was the excellent Days of Glory, another fact-based fiction that highlighted France’s shameful treatment, both during and after the war, of the Algerians who fought for France in WWII. This film is just as beautifully and intelligently shot as that one was, this time by cinematographer Christian Beaucame. Shallow depth of field, unobtrusively luscious lighting, and judiciously used close-ups intensify the focus on the three main characters and their internal torment, and the selective colorization Spielberg used to highlight the little girl in red in Schindler’s List is nicely used during that march for independence, a black-and-white scene in which only the flags are in color. Bouchareb also researched this story the same way he did Days of Glory, interviewing scores of people who lived through the events fictionalized in the film before writing the script. His three main characters even have the same names and are portrayed by the same excellent actors.

But the three are very different people this time, with different relationships to one another, and their story feels less startlingly fresh. Where Days of Glory felt as real as dirt, Outside the Law relies too much on crime-movie tropes like the predictable conflicts between the three brothers. Its coincidences—like the connections Messaoud makes during his stint as a POW in Vietnam—feel like a screenwriter’s lazy shortcut. Its dialogue too often preaches or tells us things we already know, or both, like when Abdelkader’s mother visits him in prison to say: "You’re not a criminal. You’re in prison for your ideas. You’re a man." And its tone is too relentlessly somber. A lovely but lonely little moment of lightness, in which Abdelkader and Messaoud argue about the merits of American pop music while waiting to transport a busload of weapons, lands like a sprinkling of rain on a desert.

But Bouchareb makes a convincing case about the European/colonial roots of terrorism and its persistence as a tool of state warfare. In one of the historically accurate scenes, he even shows Colonel Faivre (Bernard Blancon), the former French resistance fighter turned cop who tried to shut down the Algerian resistance in France, deciding to fight terrorism with terrorism. Faivre commissioned a group of his men to off members of Abdelkadar’s group without the bother of arrests or trials, using the cover of a defunct guerilla organization.

As Bouchareb has Faivre acknowledge to Abdelkader’s martyred corpse in a typically overengineered ending, the Algerian terrorists won their battle. They did it in pretty short order, too, considering that the demonstration that starts the film took place in 1945 and the matching parade at the end, in which Algerians crowd the streets to celebrate their newly won freedom, came just 17 years later. So did the ends justify the means? Outside the Law votes yes.

Written for The L Magazine

Monday, November 1, 2010

2010 Trenton Foreign Film Festival

Keeping nine of her ten children alive in a Congolese prison camp where they were beaten, raped, starved, and threatened with death for over a year by the soldiers who had killed her husband and more than five million of her compatriots, Rose Mapendo could easily have become hardened, bitter, or permanently traumatized – or simply given up the fight. Instead, as chronicled in Pushing the Elephant, this extraordinary woman became a kind of 21st-century messiah, speaking to and for the growing millions of international refugees seeking shelter from genocidal wars.

When she’s not on the road on behalf of Mapendo International or MNH New Horizons, nonprofit foundations that amplify her message and build on her work, she is in her new home in Phoenix, Arizona, raising her big brood of apparently healthy and happy children. The filmmakers, who keep the emotional pitch high by weaving in new revelations at deftly timed intervals, introduce Rose’s tenth child, Nangabire, just as we’re getting used to the rhythm of life for the other nine.

Nangabire was separated from her parents and siblings when the war broke out, and it took many years for Rose to find her. Directors Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel capture both sides of their deeply moving reunion, filming Nangabire as she leaves her tearful friends and grandparents in Kenya and heads apprehensively for the airport, then switch to Rose going to the airport in Phoenix while she fills us in on her daughter’s past and how sorry she is to have missed so much of it. We also see Rose searching for her daughter, then ululating joyfully before wrapping her in a hug so tight you can practically feel it.

It’s a moment of transformative joy, but it’s no happy ending: Nangabire has a lot of adjusting to do. She’s shocked at first by the “attitude” displayed by her independent, argumentative little sister and intimidated by her suburban high school, since she doesn’t know the language any better than she does the culture. But perhaps most importantly, she needs to get past the resentment and anger that are holding her back. Nangabire is understandably bitter about the years she lost with her parents and siblings, the education she missed out on when her grandparents took her out of her beloved school, and the harsh judgments she heard from other people when word got back to her community that her oldest sister was the concubine of one of the soldiers in the camp. Rose listens to her angst with her usual empathy, crying in private as she tells the camera how she grieves for the lost years she can never give back to her daughter. But she won’t let Nangabire wallow in her sorrow – for her own sake. Instead, she tells her about the importance of forgiving those who have wronged you, living in the present, and taking control of your destiny. “What I want to do is open the path of your life,” she says.

Like the Liberian women in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, who used their status as grieving mothers to help end that country’s bloody civil war, Rose gets her identity and her moral authority primarily from her role as one of the wives and mothers who, as she puts it, pay the greatest price in any war. Like a self-appointed mother to the whole wounded world, she reminds us that mothers are important because they give us the comfort and hope that keeps us alive, even when times are so desperate that they have nothing else to give.

Pushing the Elephant is one of six feature-length films and three shorts playing this weekend at the second annual Trenton Foreign Film Festival. That’s not a lot of films, but they cover a lot of turf, from the moody melodrama of the beautifully shot My Tehran for Sale to the energetic escapism of the equally gorgeous Besouro and the earnest idealism of 8th Wonderland.

My Tehran’s credits include a thank-you to Bahman Ghobadi, whose Nobody Knows About Persian Cats also follows a few young people in their travels around Tehran and showcases a lot of music, both traditional and modern, to convey both a sense of the frustrations experienced by artists oppressed by the fundamentalist regime and the cultural richness of the city’s underground. But where Ghobadi’s brilliant and feisty little film felt like a freshly served slice of life, My Tehran piles on too many tragic encounters and shots of soulful middle-distance stares and winds up feeling heavy-handed and unconvincing, despite a promising start.

Besouro is a classic revenge story hung on a strong hook – the fight waged by Brazilians of African descent to become free – that could have been a real powerhouse of a movie in the right hands. The characters and situations are so thinly developed and the dialogue so weak that the sumptuous visuals have to pull us in virtually unassisted, but they’re good enough to succeed. The title character, who really existed, worked on an early 20th century sugarcane plantation and was an early master of capoeira. That African-Brazilian mixture of fighting and dance is cinematic enough to begin with, but even it is hyped up here, turned into a mashup of classic capoeira, parkour, and Chinese-style wire fighting (Besouro supposedly got his fighting name, which means “beetle,” because he could fly when he did capoeira, and this movie shows him literally taking to the skies). The filmmakers fill the frame with gorgeous young actors, a fair amount of sex and nudity, tourist brochure-ready settings, and lots of whooshing, bug’s-eye-view dolly shots as our hero defeats his racist overlords, a pair of very, very bad guys in black hats, and inspires his people to fight on after his death. It works if you’re looking for a black-power revenge fantasy or a fable for kids – as long as they’re old enough for the sex.

The Shaft is another bad-news bulletin from fast-industrializing China, this time from a coal mining town so beautifully shot that even the coal dust is lovely, softening everything like an aging star shot through a vaselined lens. (There have been a lot of movies like this lately, most notably from the great Jia Zhangke, whose features document the enormous changes forced on ordinary people by the extraordinary changes upending the Chinese economy, and most recently from Lixin Fan, whose Last Train Home is a stunning debut.) But there’s little beauty in the lives of the people the film follows in three overlapping stories. Its deadpan camera makes us feel how trapped they are, observing depressed, mostly silent people from a fixed position as they sit in empty rooms, eat in front of a TV, ride down empty streets, or descend into the mine shaft that eventually swallows every man in town. It relies too much on expository dialogue and sometimes repeats images to the point of tedium (I suspect those repeating images are supposed to make me feel how stuck the characters are, but they just made me feel antsy instead), but there’s enough texture and information in all those near still-life shots to make it worth seeing.

8th Wonderland is a utopian French fantasy about a virtual nation formed online by a group of mostly young, universally good-looking, and demographically diverse people. Together, they debate what to do about things like the hypocrisy of the Vatican’s stance on AIDS, Chinese sweat shops that exploit children, nuclear energy, and uncaring multinational conglomerates whose products kill people, before putting their proposals to a vote and acting on them. Much of the movie is delivered in the form of international newscasts reporting on the group’s activities or the things they are reacting to, so there’s a lot of blunt satire of stupid newscasting tricks around the world, including a young woman who strips while delivering the news on a Japanese channel. Bare-bones sets, actors who look like adolescents playing at being sophisticates, and bad American accents give it all a DIY feel, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: The amateurish vibe mirrors the feel of the online community and exemplifies the film’s touchingly sincere call for secular-humanist citizen activism. 8th Wonderland may gloss over the problems that would be arise if people formed a new global political entity online, but its vision of a world in which virtual communities are at least as important as the old-fashioned kind is already close to reality.

The 2010 Trenton Foreign Film Festival will take place November 5-7 at the corner of Front and Montgomery streets in Trenton. Tickets are $8 for individual films, $24 for 4 films, or $5 at the door for high school and college students who show a valid school ID.

Written for TimeOFF