as the "holy family"

Tool Kiki, Ibrahim Ahmed and Layla Walet Mohamed as “Timbuktu’s”  “holy family”

“TIMBUKTU”  My rating: B+ 

97 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Superficially “Timbuktu” resembles one of those old WWII dramas about the Nazi occupation of a peaceful village.

The difference is that the occupiers in “Timbuktu” are the gunmen of ISIS, and that writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako eschews propaganda for an insightful and thoroughly humane study of both the oppressors and the oppressed.

“Timbuktu”  is a Mauritanian film that  was a nominee this year for best foreign language Oscar (and which cleaned up at this year’s Cesar Awards). It is set in a desert region of Mali,  which shares a border with Mauritania in northwest Africa.

It opens with gorgeous footage of a gazelle bounding across an arid landscape. The animal is being chased by a truck flying the black flag of ISIS while passengers fire their guns — a stark example of natural simplicity compromised by human cruelty.

(right) as the ISIS leader

Abel Jafri (right) as the ISIS leader

This is followed by a scene of beautiful wooden tribal effigy figures being used for target practice.

ISIS fighters go through a village (the buff-colored buildings are reminiscent of the pueblo architecture of the American Southwest), using a bullhorn to announce the rules of the occupation: Music is forbidden. Smoking is forbidden. All women must cover their heads and wear socks and gloves.

Sissako and co-writer Kessen Tall don’t provide one through story. Rather, they give us moments from daily life as experienced by numerous characters.

One story line centers on the nomadic herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), who lives in a tent with his beautiful wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). Despite a few modern conveniences like cell phones, Kidane’s family are at peace with their environment, basking in life’s simple pleasures. (They remind of Bergman’s “holy family” of actors in “The Seventh Seal.”)

But their little Eden won’t last.  The local ISIS leader, Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), covets Satima. And Kidane’s dispute with a neighbor will have tragic repercussions.

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Ronit Elkabetz and Menashe Noy

Ronit Elkabetz and Menashe Noy


115 minutes | No MPAA rating

One could hardly find a better way to observe Women’s History Month than with “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” a journey down the rabbit hole of Israeli divorce court that gives patriarchal attitudes a swift kick in the tush.

Civil marriage and  divorce don’t exist in Israel. Both are under the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts which will acknowledge a divorce only after a husband officially grants one.  In certain circumstances — if he’s committed adultery or physically abused his wife — a man may be compelled by the court to divorce.  Mostly though, the rabbis advise patience and try to get warring couples back together.

It’s a system stacked against women.

In “Gett” (the Hebrew word for divorce), middle-aged Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) has already lived three years apart from her husband of 30 years, Elisha (Simon Abkarian). Now she is seeking a divorce.

But the passive-aggressive Elisha isn’t cooperating.  He won’t even show up for a hearing.  Eventually he’s jailed for contempt to force him to appear. Even then he’s totally uncooperative.

Viviane has always been unhappy in a loveless marriage. But technically she hasn’t got much of a case. Simply being miserably married doesn’t qualify.

In the meantime she’s steered clear of other men and continued with certain of her wifely duties, cooking meals that are delivered to Elisha and their youngest child (two older offspring already have moved on).

Still, Elisha stubbornly insists he wants her back. It’s less about love than about control, and to punish Viviane for her temerity in not recognizing his superiority.

Like the hapless defendant in Kafka’s “The Trial,” Viviane’s ordeal will go on for years and years through one absurd situation after another.

Elkabetz, a quietly luminous actress, wrote and directed the film with her brother Shlomi Elkmbetz, and they have employed a rigid visual and presentational format that is hugely effective.

The entire film takes place either in the courtroom or a nearby waiting room — vague, featureless  environments with white, undecorated walls and bland industrial furniture.  Most of the characters dress only in black and white. The entire movie is monochromatic, with  color provided mostly by human flesh. When late in the film a defiant Viviane shows up in a fiery red dress, it’s like a slap at the bearded jaws of her judges.

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gunman-starring-sean-penn-released“THE GUNMAN” My rating: C

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In “The Gunman” (a prime contender for the year’s least creative movie title) Sean Penn spends a good deal of time shirtless, displaying bulging biceps and ripped abs that would be impressive on a college student, much less a guy who soon will qualify for a senior discount.

Penn’s walking testimonial to the personal training industry is about the only noteworthy thing in this empty shoot-’em-up. It’s all too clearly an attempt by the two-time Oscar winner to tap into the graybeard action-hero market so effectively explored by Liam Neeson in the “Taken” series.

Heck, “The Gunman” has even been helmed by “Taken” director Pierre Morel.

But lightning does not strike twice.  It barely flickers.

Penn plays Jim Terrier, a professional killer.  As the film begins he and his team are living in the civil war-ravaged Congo, posing as security contractors for a big firm building a jungle airstrip.

But when the minister of resources threatens to nationalize the country’s mines, shadowy corporate interests order the man’s assassination. Designated the triggerman, Jim kills with a perfect sniper shot, then is whisked out of the country. Continue Reading »

spring-fb-11“SPRING” My rating: B (Opens March 20 at the Alamo Drafthouse)

109 minutes | Np MPAA rating

For about 15 minutes “Spring” looks like it’s going to be a searing psychological study of a young man who has just lost his mother to a terrible disease.

Then it becomes the story of that same young man on the run from the law and his adventures in Italy, where he lives the life of a backpacking tourist.

He meets a girl, and then it becomes a love story.

And then, 30 minutes in, like a sucker punch out of nowhere, “Spring” turns into one of the weirdest (and weirdly affecting) horror stories encountered in many a full moon.

Gotta give credit to the writing/directing team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead — they may occasionally fumble one of the many balls they’re trying to keep up in the air, but their ambition seems to have no limits. Here they move from the utterly realistic to the spectacularly fantastic in a heartbeat.

And if the supernatural elements they have concocted seem far fetched, those lapses are balanced against two terrific performances and a tonal palette that is erotic, mysterious and genuinely moving.

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Jack O'Connell

Jack O’Connell

“’71” My rating: B (Opens March 20 at the Glenwood Arts)

99 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The soldier trapped behind enemy lines has long been a staple of the war film, but the new British release “’71” gives it an original and singularly deadly spin.

The place: Belfast. The time: 1971.

Private Hook (Jack O’Connell, looking about 10 years younger than he did in “Unbroken”) finds himself deployed to Northern Ireland.

“You are not leaving this country,” an officer reassures. Technically, he’s correct, for Belfast is part of the United Kingdom. But for all practical purposes Hook might as well be stationed on an alien planet filled with wildlife bent on killing him.

His immersion into the “troubles” is sudden and deadly. Doing house-to-house searches in a Catholic neighborhood, his unit is mobbed by furious locals hurling stones. Hook is surrounded and beaten, barely escaping with his life.

Meanwhile, his unit has scrambled back into their trucks and hightailed it for their barracks.  Hook is alone in enemy territory.

Here’s the problem: As a newcomer Hook can’t tell the difference between a Catholic neighborhood, where the locals would happily kill him, and a Protestant one where — in theory anyway — he can find shelter.

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cinderella“CINDERELLA”  My rating: B

112 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Don’t go to Disney’s new live-action version of “Cinderella” expecting post-modern irony, a feminist perspective, or even psychological realism.

The makers of this movie take their fairy tales straight up and undiluted by any such intellectual folderol.

In last year’s “Maleficent” the Disney Studio reinterpreted its 1959 “Sleeping Beauty” from the evil fairy’s point of view.

But “Cinderella” director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz have no use for such revisionism. The fairy tale is enough for them. They aim for the heart, not the head.

Darned if they don’t pull it off.

This isn’t precisely a remake of Disney’s acclaimed 1950 animated version, but fans of the original will see plenty of references, from the evil stepmother’s pampered cat Lucifer to the fat mouse Gus.

(Now if only they’d had Helena Bonham Carter’s Fairy Godmother sing “Bippity Boppity Boo”…well, can’t have everything.)

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Viacheslav Fetisov (center) and teammates bring the Stanley Cup to Moscow

“RED ARMY”  My rating: B 

76 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

You needn’t be a hockey fan or even a sports enthusiast to appreciate “Red Army,” Gabe Polsky’s documentary about the heyday of Soviet ice hockey.

It’s got plenty of hockey action, sure, but it’s also about history, politics, the Cold War, and a whole lot of other stuff.

From the 1970s until the fall of the Soviet Union in the late ’80s, a winning national hockey team — run by the Red Army — was viewed as proof to the world not only of the USSR’s athletic excellence but also of the irrefutable superiority of the Soviet system.

This doc gives a fine overview, from the days when head coach Anatoli Tarasov designed the system, studying the training programs of the Bolshoi Ballet and Soviet chess masters to create an intricate passing game in which a collective approach trumped individual ego, in which teamwork was paramount.

Indeed, watching footage of Tarasov’s squad in action is like witnessing some high speed modern dance of astounding grace and sublime coordination.

Tarasov was beloved of his players, a fat, grandfatherly figure to pre-teen boys who joined the team after national tryouts and thereafter pretty much lived and breathed hockey.

Unfortunately, Tarasov ran afoul of the leadership and was replaced by Viktor Tikhonov, a KGB operative who took Tarasov’s design and ran with it, in the process turning the Red Army team into a sort of gulag.

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