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Pedro from La Mancha returns…

After two masculine films “Habla con ella” and “La mala educación,” Pedro from La Mancha returns to his childhood home and his women-clad films, while snatching the Best Screenplay award from Cannes on the way.

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Rating: A
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Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul

The film begins when Alexander Hacke, the bass player of the group Einsturzende Neubauten arrives in Istanbul, checking into his hotel overlooking the Bosphorous. Hacke had also worked with Akin in his previous screen gem “Gegen Die Wand.” First band Hacke encounters is Baba Zula, a psychedelic rock group. What’s even more interesting than the way Baba Zula depicts authentic eastern tunes with eccentricity, is the ambience and scenery. With all their equipment on board the band gets on a boat and plays under the setting sun on the Bosphorous. The sun shines in such a way that both sides –the east and west- of Istanbul look as if they were shot in a dreamy sepia color.

On the boat with Baba Zula and Alexander Hacke, there is also Brenna MacCrimmon, a Canadian singer who came to Turkey; and settled down in Istanbul with a growing passion for old Turkish folk songs. She admits that the emotional level is much higher and way more intricate in Turkish music than it is in Western music. Even more surprising than a Canadian embracing old Turkish folk is a Turkish young man called Ceza taking on rap and turning it into a way of political expression. Unlike the gangsta’ rap and hip hop with constant references to girls and bling-bling; Ceza and the other Turkish rappers rap about politics and current events as social commentary. What’s more impressive is the speed and energy with which Ceza can rap.

Another group we encounter is Replikas. One member admits that they have all been brought up with the influence of Western cultures and their music. It was at their twenties that they recognized and claimed their origins, the origins and tunes of Turkish music. Among the new musicians Akin presents are Siya Siyabend, a street music group, Duman, a grunge-rock band and a group of break-dancers called Istanbul Style Breakers. After his portrayal of today’s Istanbul music scene, Akin introduces us to the pioneers of Turkish music, musicians who
have brought music of Istanbul to where it is today.

With roles in hundreds of movies and as the composer of hundreds of songs, Orhan Gencebay gives an exclusive unplugged concert (in the 60+ years he had been in the music scene, Gencebay never gave any live performances.) It would be fair to say that Gencebay is the ‘Boss’ of strings, with his original interpretation arabesque tunes and use of Western methods. Similar to Gencebay, Sezen Aksu has been a favorite of many, from the teenagers to elderly and from rockers to rappers. The scene towards the end where Sezen Aksu sings the ever-so-nostalgic song “Istanbul Hatirasi” (An Istanbul Memoir) feeling the emotional intensity is inevitable.

Just like the city itself, the music of Istanbul is a combination of East and West. At the beginning of the film, someone refers to a Confucius saying; in order to know a place, one has to listen to its music. Rightly so, when Akin shows us the music of Istanbul, we start learning the little bits and pieces of the city and its details. Just as the music of Istanbul brings Western music genres and give them an authentic Turkish and sometimes Eastern touch; the city embraces many cultures taking in some qualities from the West and blends them with the Orient.

Fatih Akin’s “Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul” is not just a musical documentary but also an homage to the multifaceted, historically and culturally diverse, and zestful city of Istanbul. While musical documentaries are the toughest when it comes to offering insight about a genre, a city or even a group; Fatih Akin shows us that he can do the toughest with great dexterity.

Rating: A
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Paradise Now

Fueled with the idea that being chosen as martyrs would guarantee the two a ticket to heaven; they contend that under the occupation they are already dead. They try to justify by reminding themselves that inequality should by fought, and that death is far better than being inferiorated. Leaving work, the two go to Said’s house to spend the night. Unbeknownst to their families and friends, it is possibly their last supper together. In the middle of the night Said leaves to see Suha, (Lubna Azabal) the woman he met while fixing her car. Unlike Said and Khaled, Suha –daughter of a very revered Palestinian suicide bomber– was raised in Paris and Morocco with European morals and standards.

Said’s unofficial farewell to Suha turns into a discourse on the ethical issues surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict. When Suha learns that Said was among the participants who burned the Revoli movie theater, she is disconcerted. Terrorism and suicide in the name of freedom is unreasonable for her; killing innocent people, burning a harmless theater can in no way solve the political conflicts in Palestine or guarantee passage to an imaginary paradise. Yet, Said also has a valid point: if one’s life is hell, even the idea of a paradise will be enough.

In the third act of the film Said and Khaled –with bombs strapped tight to their chests– go over the Israeli border to follow through with the strike. Things go wrong and Khaled comes back to the West Bank while Said is AWOL. Once they reunite, Said restores confidence with the Palestinian organizers and they set out with the plan one last time.

The film in essence is not preaching for either side of the border. In an interview Abu-Assad describes the hardship and terror the crew faced while filming on location in Nablus. He states, “In Nablus, the Israeli Army invades the city almost everyday to arrest what they call the “Wanted” Palestinians. At day-break the invasion starts with tanks rolling in, gunshots and rocket attacks and in the evening there is a curfew.” Adding to the travesty of the conditions, Palestinians kidnapped the film’s location manager. Considering the situation the film crew faced over the few months they spent in occupied Palestine, one can get a sliver of a clue of what these suicide bombers are fighting for.

Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now” is not a film that aims to justify the acts of suicide bombers. On the contrary, it is a film that seeks to shed light on the story of innocent Palestinians. Why and how these innocent people partake in terrorist acts, –or rather are left with no alternative than to sacrifice their lives for what they are forced to believe– is for the viewers to speculate.

As the film’s tagline proposes, “From the most unexpected place, comes a bold new call for peace.” The acting is heartfelt; story is grasping, and in sum, “Paradise Now” tells the story of an occupation as pure and fair as it can be told.

Rating: B
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My Summer of Love

At the beginning of her summer holiday, Mona (Nathalie Press) a red-haired, naive adventurer meets Tamsin (Emily Blunt), a spoiled, sarcastic private school student. Perhaps because Mona looks up to Tamsin for her sophistication and knowledge of things she is unaware of, or perhaps because Tamsin is interested in Mona for her naivete — they slowly become inseparable.

Tamsin is strong-minded and reckless on the exterior, but quite the opposite on the inside. Tamsin can accomplish her daring acts by means of Mona’s existence and the power she can initiate from her presence. Emily Blunt brilliantly portrays Tamsin’s angst as well as the phony defiance in her character. She uses this rebelliousness to mask her fears and Mona becomes her ideal partner-in-crime.

In contrast to Tamsin’s affluent audacity, Mona is free-at-heart. Unable to connect with her born-again Christian brother, Phil (Paddy Considine), Mona is first attracted to Tamsin simply because she needs a friend. Nathalie Press perfectly communicates the bright-eyed innocence of Mona. Mona looks up to Tamsin, and her exotic world of Edith Piaf and red wine.

Blunt and Press shared the Evening Standard British Film award for Most Promising Newcomer. Evidently, the dazzling performance of the duo is what brought Pawlikowski’s film international acclaim. In addition to offering outstanding portrayals of their characters individually, they convey the accordance of Mona and Tamsin with great ease. The layers of their intimate relationship are put forth perfectly. However, even though the two actors complement each other flawlessly and Considine gives a great performance as Phil, the film lacks a certain substance.

The grainy cinematography and the shaky camera work feel trite and pointless. The storyline is unrealistic at times and the characters — though they are executed with flair — appear unreal. The plot doesn’t offer enough to hold the audience’s attention and the ending feels expected and tedious. The only good thing about the ending is the expression on Mona’s face. It is as if the ending negates the dreamy love affair of Tamsin and Mona that the film tries to get across, or perhaps it shows that there never really was a love affair. In any case, the end takes more than it adds to the film.

Rating: B-
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5X2

Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stephane Freiss) go to a hotel room for one last fling after leaving their divorce lawyer’s office. This fling turns out to be a rape when Marion realizes that she has made a mistake by agreeing on this last date. Following this sequence and being introduced to Gilles as a rather appalling character, Ozon allows us a peek at an evening at the couple’s house when they entertain Gilles’ brother and his lover. This is followed by the third act, the birth of their child. When a complication occurs and Marion has to have a cesarean, Gilles abandons her at the hospital, to return only after everything is all right.

The fourth act is their wedding night. This is the first time the audience sees Marion and Gilles completely in love with each other, unfazed by the hardships of a marriage and before they learn indifference, disgust and disillusion. After this sequence Ozon takes us to an Italian beach resort where Marion is vacationing alone, and Gilles is with then-girlfriend Valerie (Geraldine Pailhas). The last shot of the movie is Marion and Gilles going in for a swim, just as the sun starts to rise behind the mountains.

As the story progresses -or rather disentangles, – the first impression of Gilles as the intimidating husband and Marion as the acquiescing wife is transformed. Both Gilles and Marion evolve into real, three-dimensional characters. The shot of Gilles sleeping next to his little son, and the shot where Marion returns to their hotel room on their wedding eve portray the profound and realistic existences of both Gilles and Marion.

In an interview Ozon says, “I wanted each episode to reflect a different style of cinema, we start with an intense psychological drama, then move into the second part, which is more socially anchored, in the tradition of French cinema. For the wedding American films were my reference, and for the couple’s initial encounter I aimed for something along the lines of Rohmer’s summer films.”

Ozon has definitely accomplished offering a different cinematic style for each act of the movie. These stylistic variations in turn enable Ozon to progress from one sequence to the earlier with coherence and ease. This way, the five episodes feel like five random photographs from their family album all taken at different years and occasions. The omission of periods in between the five episodes allows the viewers to somewhat create their own realities based on personal experiences or interpretations of these episodes.

While a fatalist viewer might perceive the last episode, the episode of their attraction as the beginning of the end, a more positive viewer would see it as a foundation of an intimate relationship as any other, filled with passion, fear and unfortunately, closure. “5X2” lets the audience decide if it is a sad or happy movie, just as it lets them decide where it ends

Rating: B
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Mysterious Skin

Gregg Araki’s first adaptation, “Mysterious Skin,” is based on Scott Heim’s critically acclaimed novel of the same title. Less devastating than the novel, the film depicts a challenging subject matter with an aesthetically mind-bending and vivid style. In contrast to the story, which is dark and unsettling, the cinematography is as lush and beautiful as cotton candy. Araki incorporates icons of suburban childhood — colorful cereals, Halloween costumes and Polaroids — in his portrayal of two children being molested by their Little League baseball coach.

With a loving mother, (Elisabeth Shue) who is negligent enough to have sex with her boyfriend in the backyard, young Neil perceives his Little League coach’s (Bill Sage) interest in him as love. Brian, on the other hand, completely suppresses his experiences with the coach and believes those hours of mystery to be due to an alien abduction. Neil experiments with strange men to satisfy his curiosity in sex, careless in his choices, while Brian searches for an explanation to his lost childhood memories. Eleven years later Brian turns up at Neil’s door.

Neil’s voyage introduces a homophobic gay monster, an AIDS patient in need of affection and men who can’t have sex without drugs. All these encounters are portrayed with starkness and deliver heightened emotion. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s performance is stunning. He conveys Neil’s character with subtlety, demonstrating Neil’s affliction with his actions and his eyes. Brady Corbet is equally adept in portraying Brian, delivering a distress and innocence that makes the viewer want to take care of him.

“Mysterious Skin” is less outrageous than Araki’s former films. It is a film about child abuse more so than it is about homosexuality. The story is heartbreaking, the acting is brilliant and the cinematography is breathtaking. Araki takes a dark subject and illustrates it with an absolute aesthetic splendor that pulls the viewer in and shocks them even more when they realize what is happening. Perhaps that is what makes the film as visceral as it is. “Mysterious Skin” is not for everyone, but it surely is one of the most powerful and moving films of the last few years.

Rating: A
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