Monday, August 29, 2011

Film Review: Bitter Sugar

"Bitter Sugar" *** (out of ****)

It has been my opinion that the majority of Cuban films suffer from the same problem. The films of Cuba are made strickly for Cubans to see and no one else. Of the handful of Cuban films I have seen nearly none of them portray the political climate of the country correctly. Most of the Cuban films I have seen have revolved around the Castro revolution. All of them have been pro-Castro. What I've never been able to figure out is what was wrong with the Batista regime? What was the country like? What lead to Castro?

The Cuban film "Bitter Sugar (Azucar Amarga 1997) doesn't answer any of these questions but it is a remarkable film none-the-less. The film deals with, at the time, modern day Cuba. Castro has been in power for decades. His grip is firmly felt throughout the country. But "Bitter Sugar" does something few Cuban films have done. First it shows us what Cubans are feeling. It truly gives us a sense of the country and what the people of Cuba think and feel. Secondly, it is anti-Castro (I assume because of this the film was not shot in Cuba but rather Santo Domingo).

Of the more modern films from Cuba I have seen, they seem to suggest everything is not okay in their homeland. The film, Nada (2001) disguised itself as a quirky romance, but, beneath its surface was the story of a woman who wanted to escape a repressed country. Here too in "Bitter Sugar" we are dealing with characters who want to escape a repressed country, only this film makes it its center theme. And that's what I admire most about "Bitter Sugar". The film displays a level of frustration and despair. We can almost sense how hopeless things are in Cuba. There is no social advancement.

The hero of the film is Gustavo (Rene Lavan) a bright young college student who has the chance to leave Cuba and study in Prague. But, you see, Rene and his family are Communist. Devoted communist in fact. They even have pictures of Fidel hanging on their wall. They believe in what Castro stands for. Gustavo's father, Dr. Valdez (Miguel Gutierrez) remembers well when Castro took power. He felt it was going to be a great moment of change. A new beginning. But Cuba is still facing hard times. Still, one can't abandon the great leader. At least that is what Gustavo believes.

Gustavo's brother, Bobby (Larry Villanueva) does not share his family's political views. He is a musician who embraces American music. Gustavo soon meets a beautiful woman, Yolando (Mayte Vilan). She also does not support Castro. Can these two people change Gustavo and his father's mind?

Without spoiling much, the majority of the characters in "Bitter Sugar" learn the bitter truth about Cuba. They each face hardships and disappointments. Maybe the great leader isn't so great after all. In Hungarian cinema, which was also at one time a Communist country, there is a filmmaker named Istvan Szabo. He usually makes films which concern the theme, with great power comes great corruption. I always think of Szabo when I watch Cuban films and that particular theme. Isn't that exactly what happened with Castro? Here was a man people put faith in. A man who said he would end the corruption which plagued his beloved country. But as soon as he gained power he realized he liked it and would not reliquish it. With his great power came great corruption.

I have a hunch "Bitter Sugar" shows us what Cuba is really like. What the people are really experiencing. Other Cuban films like "Guaguasi" (1983), "Hello Hemingway" (1990) and "Clandestinos" (1988) did not present us with an accurate portrait of Cuba and the issues which the country faces. They didn't give us a feeling of the times. That was their downfall. "Bitter Sugar" has some emotionally strong and powerful moments. Moments when character make grand speeches but their words ring true. Their feelings seem sincere. We are drawn into their despair.

The film was directed by Leon Ichaso. He has worked on some American TV shows like "Miami Vice" and even directed "Saturday Night Live" back in the early eighties. He says the film is based on his own experiences and the experiences of most Cuban-Americans. I believe him. In fact, if someone is Cuban and decides to watch this movie, I'm almost not sure if that is a good idea. I would imagine that person would become so sad to see what their country has become.

For the rest of us though, it is a compelling and disturbing look inside Cuba.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Film Review: Queen of the Lot

"Queen of the Lot"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Queen of the Lot" (2010) is another quirky, off-beat Henry Jaglom film, starring his latest muse, the actress Tanna Frederick. This is their third film together and are already working on a fourth.

"Queen of the Lot" is a sequel to Jaglom's and Frederick's first film together, "Hollywood Dreams" (2007). In that film, Maggie Chase (Frederick) as she is now called, was a young novice actress from Iowa (where Frederick is really from) who dreamed of becoming a Hollywood actress. The film also had a subplot dealing with sexual identity. In "Queen of the Lot" Maggie is a big star. She is best known for her roles in action films.

Sadly for Maggie, Hollywood has not turned out to be all she thought it would. Maggie she gained a reputation as a "bad girl". In the beginning moments of the film the camera wants to make sure that the viewer knows Ms. Chase is wearing an electronic ankle bracelet due to a DUI.

Unable to deal with the public scrutiny Maggie decides she and her boyfriend, Dov Lambert (Christoher Rydell) head out to her agents; Kaz (Zack Norman) and Caesar (David Proval) a homosexual couple. After a few night there, where Maggie even has the gaul to ask to sleep in the master bedroom, Dov thinks its best he and Maggie head out to his father's (Jack Heller) estate, where they can spend the Christmas holiday together. It is there Maggie meets Dov's brother, Aaron (Noah Wyle, who actually gets second billing!) and a romance begins to blossom.

At first I thought "Queen of the Lot" was going to be a satirical look at Hollywood. A critique on the state of today's actors, whom once they achieve fame give up on all artistic merit. I thought the film was going to show us the phony nature of Hollywood and all the wheeling and dealing which goes on behind the scenes to get a picture made. And finally I simply thought the film was going to show an actress headed towards a downward spiral as the Hollywood culture takes her down and she yearns for her old life in Iowa again.

Sadly "Queen of the Lot" is none of those things. Maggie doesn't shy away from the limelight, she places herself in the middle of attention. She google's her name and reads what others say about her. She wants to achieve greater success. She wants people to notice her when she walks on the sidewalk or sits down at a cafe. She wants her face on a cup.

The film doesn't take many shots at Hollywood either. Henry Jaglom has been making films for forty years. Like John Cassevettes or Mike Leigh, he has been a force in the independent film circuit. If anyone can dish the dirt on Hollywood and back room deals, I would have thought it would have been Jaglom. I would have thought he would relish the opportunity to expose these people. I'm sure he has some good stories to tell. But he doesn't tell any of them in this film.

But there are some good moments in the film. Some of my favorites involve Peter Bogdanovich. He plays a nearly washed-up filmmaker, Pedja (where the heck did they get that name from?) who is being ordered to remake Ernst Lubitsch's classic romantic comedy, "Trouble in Paradise" (1932, my personal favorite Lubitsch comedy). Pedja is against it and begins to explain why he nor anyone else should ever remake any Lubitsch film.

Bogdanovich is always a pleasure to watch on-screen. Whether he is giving an interview or acting in a movie he lights up the screen. He always has good stories to tell and is an encyclopedia on the subject of the history of film.

I also think Noah Wyle probably gives the best performance in the film. Compare his style of acting to some of the others in the film. Wyle comes off much more realistic. He doesn't seem to be over-acting. His behavior and speech reflects that of a normal, everyday person. You can relate to him. Watching him on-screen acting opposite some of the other actors shows you why he is a professional and the others simply have a lot to learn.

I was though disappointed there wasn't more for Zack Norman. Norman is one of my favorite Jaglom regulars. He has a great comic style of acting and a persona which always reminds me of Woody Allen, a fast-talking, wild hand gesturing, dreamer. It is also too bad Bogdanovich isn't given enough time.

But while those moments are good, it isn't always enough. "Queen of the Lot" doesn't focus on its original theme of an actress' personal life spinning out of control. Many times the film's dialogue comes out of left field, like a moment when Maggie talks about masturbating pigs (!). Or mention of a subplot concerning one of the characters about to lose their home, or the marital status of some of the characters. The film just goes into directions it never should have. The plot structure is too loose.

New York Daily News film critic, Elizabeth Weitzman wrote in her review of this film, "if Henry Jaglom is determined to push muse Tanna Frederick on us, he really ought to give her more than the self-congratulatory vanity projects they keep churning out together." I actually wrote something similar in my review for Jaglom's last film, "Irene in Time" (2009). In "Queen of the Lot" I didn't feel that way but I could see Weitzman's point. Almost all of the male characters fall for Maggie. It reminds me a bit of the film "Pandora's Box" (1929) with Louise Brooks, where Brooks brings out lust in every man she meets. But Frederick is no Louise Brooks.

"Queen of the Lot" I guess is the best film Jaglom and Frederick have worked on together but unfortunately that's not saying much since I haven't been greatly impressed with Jaglom's work of late. When will Jaglom give us more movies like "Sitting Ducks" (1980), "Deja Vu" (1998) and his much better film looking at the movies and movie stars, "Festival in Cannes" (2002)?

Since "Queen of the Lot" invokes classic Hollywood, by name dropping Norma Shearer, Louis B. Mayer and Ernst Lubitsch maybe Jaglom should have rewatched some classics like "Bombshell" (1933) a great Jean Harlow comedy about an actress who wants a normal life or the funny Howard Hawks comedy "Twentieth Century" (1934).