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Two Sundays ago, Academy Awards host Hugh Jackman triumphantly declared, "I am Wolverine!" in a powerful, firework-aided falsetto that ended his introductory routine and simultaneously confirmed just how far Hollywood's self-esteem has fallen. Ironically enough, Jackman's jab at himself was the funniest moment of the night, but it begs the question why an industry's most important ceremony requires this level of self-parody to become watchable. The X-Men franchise, after all, has been one of the biggest hits of the new century, collectively grossing more than a billion dollars. If Hollywood really believed in itself and its audience, wouldn't these movies be nominated for Oscars? Instead, Jackman — whose enthusiasm was a refreshing antidote to the usual droll stance of "fill-in-the-blank" comedian — was forced into the role of the serious actor who does big-budget films just for money, never mind that if given the chance right now, almost all of you would choose any of the X-Men films over Australia. And if you have any sense at all, you'd choose a foreign film over both.
It's an old theme by now, but the rest of the world is kicking our ass at filmmaking. The reasons for this are simple: Foreign governments invest much more heavily in the arts, providing a freedom of expression that Tinseltown's corporate structure can't abide, and the result is that the worst flick in the World Competition at the Miami International Film Festival, debuting this weekend, at least demonstrates a basic trust in the communicative power of its own images, something that Hollywood's "script-by-committee" system has all but abandoned. (If you want to know how bad it's gotten, the term exposition is no longer sufficient. Google infodump.)
The festival's French-made Khamsa unfortunately falls into that weaker category, partly because there are already much better versions of its "sad tale of a kid trying to make his way in the ghetto" plot — City of God and Hate being the best of the recent ones, Truffaut's 400 Blows the best of the older ones. Still, Khamsa's gypsy and Arabian hood rats lashing out against a racist Marseilles are well drawn (even if the film as a whole remains tattered at the edges with poor editing and continuity mistakes galore), and it's worth seeing for the sub-narrative of Tony, the protagonist's dwarf cousin. Like a character in a French country song, Tony lives in his mother's trailer and trains cockfighting roosters for a living. Though his physical impairment makes him a target for derision, it also elicits the most emotion from the young thugs around him, and from the film itself. When his prize rooster Tyson steps into the octagon, you fear for the bird's life more than that of anyone else.
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In contrast, it's difficult to find cinematic antecedents for Paper Soldier, a Russian period film about the first astronaut (hint: he wasn't American) to enter space. In terms of mood, Last Year in Marienbad comes close, for Paper Soldier is just as much about the spaces between the characters as the characters themselves, but it also dabbles in Russia's great literary tradition of allegory. Even as the filmmakers glorify one of Russia's greatest victories over the United States, they are memorializing the Soviet government's historic brutality toward its own people. Several characters lost their parents to Stalin's gulags, and allusions to Russia's current climate of oppression are easy to draw. But like any great film, Paper Soldier resists your descriptions of it. Sometimes, like when the intelligentsia are partying in the country, it feels like a lost Renoir pic, but then, in the barren tundra of Kazakhstan, where cosmonauts are having bicycle races through muddy and desolate fields, it suddenly feels like Beckett. Or maybe an easier comparison is director Aleksei German, who wrote fantastical political satires such as The Master and Margarita but also realist tales of woe such as A Country Doctor's Notebook. Either way, from the first frame, you'll feel completely transported.
Soaked in claustrophobia, March, a German film about a small town's inability to cope with a triple suicide, reveals a different kind of desolation. Unlike Paper Soldier, nearly the entire film is shot in closeups, mirroring the myopia that the tragedy has caused in the victims' family members' lives. Even when outdoors, no one is able to escape the close proximity of buildings and trees — they literally can't see the forest for them — and so stumble around in forced imitation of their own lives. The film walks the line between evoking loss and losing the viewer, but does so successfully. When the camera finally ascends above eye level, to the top of a high-dive at a public pool, the view to the ground is absolutely terrifying — as is the prospect for these fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers to somehow understand the meaning in the world around them.
Equally dark and contemplative is Delta, a Hungarian film shot almost entirely in the marshlands of the Danube. Director Kornél Mundruczó uses the pace of the water to guide his camera movements and his narrative, which floats predictably, but not unsastifyingly, toward tragedy. And the fate of the main characters is tragic, even if they are engaged in an incestual relationship. American viewers will find commonalities with the Western — prodigal son returns home as a quiet yet troubled man who simply wants to live in peace but the town won't let him — and when the townsfolk at last turn on him, you'll be expecting Eastwood to rise out of protagonist Mihail's (Félix Lajkó) shaggy blond hair. But this is the Danube, not Monument Valley, and there's no myth of the West to play on here. The original actor playing Mihail, Lajos Bertók, died halfway through filming, forcing the filmmakers to reshoot a substantial portion with new lead actors and lending an even deeper gravitas to an already sad story.
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