By Mike Caccioppoli
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (USA, 2010)
Directed by Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg
Joan Rivers is quite the woman. I must say that I didn’t have much of an opinion about her before seeing this documentary but now I do. A Piece of Work could refer to her character and it probably does but it also refers to what she is always looking for: work. At 76 years old she’s still going strong but as she shows us at the beginning of the film, her work calendar isn’t always filled up. “This is what fear looks like” she says as she holds up a month with a blank page, it’s so white she has to wear sun glasses to look t it. Rivers has to work. Is it about money? Sometimes, as she has a huge payroll with all of her assistants and writers. She even pays for the children of her staffers to go to private schools. What employer does that these days?
There is no doubt after watching A Piece of Work that Rivers is a workaholic and a perfectionist. “They only gave me three out of five stars” she tells her assistant as she waves her finger. She was referring to a review of her new play which just opened in London. She knows she can’t take it to New York with lukewarm reviews. Her manager tells us that she will do anything for work, even playing in a Mormon town in the middle of winter. When she tells a joke about Helen Keller a man heckles her “I have a deaf son.. that’s not funny”, “Shut up you stupid asshole..comedy is about laughing at things so we can deal with them,” Rivers shouts back. Rivers is right but after the show she tells her staff how she feels bad for the man with the deaf son, “Maybe it was cathartic..and now he feels better.”
With A Piece of Work we see aspects of Rivers personality that we haven’t been privy to before. She is brutally honest about her career, her love life (her husband killed himself leaving her and Melissa with nothing) and her fear of being not wanted. Yes even the plastic surgery is talked about. Mostly though the film shows her for the brilliant comedienne she really is. After that heckler throws her off she recovers quickly, “I was lucky to get the audience back” she tells us. I don’t think luck has anything to do with it.
Cairo Time (Canada, 2009)
Directed by Ruba Nadda
Cairo Time could be called the Before Sunrise for the middle aged demographic. The film is about Juliette, played by Patricia Clarkson, a woman who is stuck in Cairo waiting for her diplomat husband to return from Palestine. Shot and acted at such a leisurely pace that it might cause some viewers to fall asleep, I however stayed awake and it was actually worth it. The scenery is beautiful, in fact some of the shots of the pyramids are the best I’ve seen. While in Cairo Juliette is shown around town by Tareq (Alexander Siddig) and they begin to have feelings for each other which could be dicey since Tareq used to work for her husband.
The dialog in Cairo Time is very spare and naturalistic which some might interpret as mundane but in reality it’s the way people usually talk especially when they hardly know each other. “You don’t look like you watch much television,” Patricia says, “I do late at night when I can’t sleep,” responds Tareq. Clarkson is a big reason why the film works as her subtle, underplayed acting style really complements the films pace. She can say so much with a look or a turn of the head. While the film is probably too airy to have the dramatic impact it might want, Clarkson’s performance, along with the chemistry she and Siddig share, are enough to keep us engaged.
The Hedgehog (France, 2009)
Directed by Mona Achache
An 11 year old girl decides that she wants to commit suicide when she turns 12. She films her family on a daily basis with her video camera and at the same time tells us what she’s thinking and why she must end her life. “I don’t want to live life in a fishbowl” she tells us. This is a very smart and intuitive 11 year old and once you can get past her being much smarter than most 11 years olds The Hedgehog becomes an extremely moving and thoughtful film about life and the meaning of death. This is heavy stuff but under the direction of Mona Achache it doesn’t feel that way. The film is funny, joyful and clever and it contains a standout performance by the great Josiane Belasko as the janitor of the building that the girl lives in.
While the girl may be planning her suicide, the film begins to focus on Belasko and her newfound love interest. Portly and not very attractive she feels as though the best of life has passed her by until a Japanese man moves in upstairs. “We can be friends or anything we want” he tells her. She’s both smitten and frightened at the same time. I won’t tell you where the film takes us because the revelation at the end is both surprising and meaningful, bringing everything that has preceded it into sharp focus but I can say that The Hedgehog is both incisive and moving. It’s one of the best films at the festival.
The Dry Land (USA, 2010)
Directed by Ryan Piers Williams
This film is about a man returning home from the Iraq war and the post-traumatic stress disorder that prevents him from “getting on with his life.” We’ve seen this story before in countless films especially from the Vietnam era, but The Dry Land is able to find its own personal touch and the result is a solid debut film from writer/director Ryan Piers Williams. A big reason for the films success are the performances, especially Ryan O’Nan as the vet, and America Ferrera as his wife. I’ve never seen O’Nan before but he brings a brutal honesty to his portrayal of a man who can’t remember the most defining moment in his tour of duty and it’s tearing him apart. Wilmer Valderrama is surprisingly good as a platoon buddy who has his own issues at home.
While the film may go on a bit too long it’s actually preferable to the “easy way out” ending that so many films defer to. The Dry Land knows there is no “happy ending” for a story like this one, and that the war at home may go on as long as the war in Iraq.
Restrepo (USA, 2010)
Directed by Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington
Restrepo is one of the most intense documentaries you will ever see. The filmmakers embedded themselves with the soldiers of the Second Platoon in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2008 and the result is a very intimate and harrowing look at the lives of our soldiers during wartime. Restrepo is the outpost named in honor of the fallen Juan Restrepo, one of the platoon’s most loved soldiers. We hear in interviews that were done when the surviving members of the platoon returned home how much he meant to all of them and the pride they took in building the outpost in his name.
The filmmakers got so close to everything that when a battle breaks out we can see and hear the bullets whipping past the soldiers heads. When a Staff Sargent is killed we see his body moments after his death, and watch as a grown man cries like a child over it. “He was the best soldier out there, and if someone like him was killed what lied ahead for the rest of us?” one soldier recollects. While the battle scenes are stunning it’s in the “down time” that we really get a sense of what these guys had to deal with. The local elders in the Korengal Valley where the men are stationed had to be constantly negotiated with in order to keep them on their side. After accidentally killing a cow they have to make amends with the town leaders. The soldiers decide that they can’t give them the money they want so they will just have to settle for the weight of the cow in food. How much did that cow weigh exactly?
Restrepo is not a “political” film, there is no talk about the positives or negatives of why we are there. It simply shows what these soldiers have to do on a daily basis to survive another day.. period. It’s been said that every war film is inherently “anti-war” because they show us the horrors of it. Restrepo is no exception, but in getting so close to the action it also makes it clear that if you are there you don’t have the luxury of such a philosophical debate.