Utne Reader Film Reviews: January-February 2009

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Surfing to Europe
Europa Film Treasures

The laptop screen still can’t compete with the silver screen for cinematic grandeur, but what the computer lacks in scale, it compensates for in breadth and immediacy. Visitors to the Europa Film Treasures website will find themselves just a few mouse clicks away from a 1919 Hungarian Revolution parable from the director of Casablanca, a 1928 Russian mini-epic of animated marionettes, and an elegantly astute 1955 Macedonian documentary on a fraternal order of dervishes observing Ramadan.

This welcome trove of the motion picture medium’s formative juvenilia aggregates dozens (so far) of short-form relics–many with new original scores, most in pristine restorations, and all searchable by title, date, nationality, genre, director, cast, and more. Each is appended with a concise scholarly history, synopsis, and production specs; subtitles, where necessary, come in your choice of five languages. It’s the brainchild of compulsive film archivist and restorer Serge Bromberg, whose company Lobster Films houses more than 100,000 reels in its labyrinthine Paris offices and is one of the 28 European film archives from which Europa Film Treasures gathers its remarkable content.

The site isn’t all serious and scholarly. There are also pure entertainments–and impure ones–running a gamut from the 1917 John Ford western Bucking Broadway, in which a cowboy loses himself in New York City, to the understandably popular 1948 erotic short aptly known as The Apple-Knockers and the Coke. Best, and most web-appropriate, is that it’s a work in progress, adding content and interactive features regularly. –Jonathan Kiefer

Kinshasa Cool
On The Rumba River
(First Run Features; on DVD)

On the Rumba River is a music-rich, dramatized documentary built around a simple story line: An aging musician gets his old band back together. Luckily, the musician is not Don Henley but Antoine Kolosoy, a.k.a. Papa Wendo, a former star of Congolese rumba music. Once the kings of the downtown Kinshasa scene, Wendo’s old bandmates fire up the guitars, horns, and thumb pianos and play their cosmopolitan, jazz-inflected music with all the passion they can muster, which is considerable. Wendo emerges as a tyrannical and evangelical figure who inspires great devotion; the Congo emerges as a battered but proud version of its former self after decades of civil war. –Keith Goetzman

Labor Movement
Orgasmic Birth
(Sunken Treasure; on DVD)

If you’ve never heard that having a baby can be a sensual or even sexual experience, Orgasmic Birth will clue you in to what midwives and other natural birth practitioners have long known: that certain women, under certain conditions, get as much pleasure as pain from giving birth. To be sure, it’s a small proportion, but in Debra Pascali-Bonaro’s documentary this counterintuitive fact is a launching point for all sorts of myth busting about C-sections, labor-induction drugs, and other family-unfriendly hospital birth practices. “Most people aren’t comfortable with a woman in labor,” one expert says. Orgasmic Birth will challenge your comfort level, and perhaps raise it. –K.G.

Graphic Carnage
Waltz with Bashir
(Sony Pictures Classics; in theaters)

Waltz with Bashir isn’t just a haunting portrait of war’s lingering effects; it’s also a bold and painterly piece of political art. Using hand-drawn graphic animation in a quasi-documentary mode, Israeli director Ari Folman explores his role–and his country’s–in the 1982 massacre of thousands of Palestinian refugees in West Beirut. As a veteran of the Lebanon War, Folman becomes plagued with a recurrent nightmare he fails to understand. The film unfolds like a psychedelic therapy session, as Folman talks to fellow soldiers, recreates their guilt-ridden memories–in often surreal detail–and comes to terms with their collective complicity. Like 2007’s Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir proves cartoons can confront real-life horrors every bit as bracingly as the news ever could. –Anthony Kaufman

Utne Reader Approved

The touching biopic Run for Your Life (Screen Media Films; on DVD) tells the story of the New York City Marathon and its founder: Fred Lebow, a part-huckster, part-visionary immigrant Jew from Transylvania. Using archival footage and interviews with famous New Yorkers, it’s also a keen portrait of today’s New York City. –Bennett Gordon

Wendy and Lucy (Oscilloscope Pictures; in theaters) is a poetic, political parable set in the Pacific Northwest. A young vagabond, Wendy (Michelle Williams), loses her beloved dog, Lucy, and the ensuing search is a moving tale about the unforgiving nature of the American economy. –A.K.

If the economy’s got you down, the breezy yet illuminating I.O.U.S.A. (Roadside Attractions; on DVD) may not cheer you up–but this documentary about the dangers of the ballooning national deficit will help you understand America’s unsustainable fiscal policies. –A.K.

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