Lita On Film

Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

“Grey Matter” (2010) – Tribeca 2011 Selection

In Film Reviews on April 30, 2011 at 6:14 pm

“Grey Matter” is the first Rwandan feature film whose director was both born in Rwanda and is still living there.  This is significant because when trying to grapple cinematically with an event as incomprehensible as genocide, who gets to tell the story makes all the difference in the world.

Director Kivu Ruhorahoza’s semi-autobiographical film follows a young director named Balthazar who is trying desperately to bring his film, “The Cycle of the Cockroach,” to fruition.  Everyone he asks for funding turns him down; the government wants him to produce public-service announcements about HIV instead.  Rather than telling his production team that the film has no funding, he decides to proceed as though everything’s in place.  From that point on “Grey Matter” becomes a dreamlike vision of Balthazar’s film, which tells the story of a brother and sister whose family was murdered during the genocide.  Eventually, the sister is institutionalized in the same facility as a man who has gone crazy from the atrocities he committed, the victim and the perpetrator becoming indistinguishable.

The performances are very emotional, and though the story fragments and rebuilds itself repeatedly, making it hard to follow, the overall effect is quite profound.  The two characters are complex and well developed, both grappling in very different ways with the aftereffects of immense and indescribable trauma.  “Grey Matter’s” film-within-a-film structure gives this narrative an interesting aspect of meta-commentary: we’re reminded at the end that the siblings’ story is being constructed by a real Rwandan (even if, like Ruhorahoza, he wasn’t witness to the genocide himself).  In turn, the fact that Ruhorahoza is also a true Rwandan gives this rhetorical structure even more significance.

Most Americans know about the events of 1994 because of the Don Cheadle film “Hotel Rwanda” (2004).  “Grey Matter” could not be a more different type of film; far from aspiring to be a romanticized Hollywood version of events, Ruhorahoza’s film is semantically closer to the early works of Ousmane Sembene, often referred to as the father of post-colonial African cinema.  Much like Sembene’s seminal “Black Girl” (1969), “Grey Matter” borrows much of its visual language from the innovators of the French New Wave—which is to say that it can be, at times, difficult to sit through.  If you’re not used to 90-minute films shot in real time, make sure you’ve had a lot of coffee before sitting down with “Grey Matter.”  (In fact, no less than three critics fell asleep during the press screening I attended.)

That being said, “Grey Matter” is, in its own way, an amazing film.  It won a Special Jury Mention in the Best New Narrative Director category at Tribeca this year, and its star, Ramadhan “Shami” Bizimana, was named Best Actor in a Narrative Feature.  As long as you can resign yourself to a storyline that isn’t totally linear and predictable, you will get a lot out of seeing this film.


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Saint (2010) – Tribeca 2011 Selection

In Film Reviews on April 26, 2011 at 6:46 pm


Four words: Santa Claus horror movie.  Ok, it’s not quite that simple, but that’s the essential premise of Danish director Dick Maas’s (“The Shaft”) latest flick, a silly slasher with some truly enjoyable special effects and a lack of substance that’s both unabashed and, well, jolly.

The premise is straight out of American meta-horror films of the 1980s: a group of nubile young students is hunted down by an evil version of St. Nicolas, who turns out to have been a bishop who murdered children for fun hundreds of years ago.  “Saint” opens with a scene in which the angry medieval townsfolk get their revenge on St. Nick and his band of marauders.  As he’s burned to death, the monstrous bishop vows revenge on the people of Amsterdam.

Flash forward a few hundred years and all the pieces are in place for 88 minutes of campy fun: a disgruntled cop on the verge of solving the mystery, the aforementioned nubile coeds, and a chiseled male protagonist, who is gradually forced to admit the supernatural nature of what he’s dealing with.

While Maas’s film struggles a bit to stay upright, balanced as it is on a very thin premise, its enormous budget and over-the-top score (also by Maas) help pull it back from the realm of trash into the pantheon of tongue-in-cheek popcorn horror.  If you were bored on a Sunday night, and perhaps a little tipsy, “Saint” would be a perfect way to finish off your weekend.  Talk about getting into the holiday spirit!

“Saint” will be released later this year in theaters and on VOD by IFC Midnight.

Tribeca Film Festival 2011 Coverage!

In Uncategorized on April 25, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Though my partnership with ScreenComment.com, I was able to attend a few days of the 10th annual Tribeca Film Festival.  Keep an eye out for my reviews of great new films from around the globe over the next few days, and be sure to check in with the other writers at ScreenComment for even more hot-off-the-press goodness!

Dumbstruck (2010)

In Film Reviews on April 25, 2011 at 6:54 pm


If you’re anything like me, when someone mentions a ventriloquist, the first thing your mind conjures up is that priceless scene in “Best in Show” in which Christopher Guest does an unconvincing routine in the back of an RV.  At just the right moment, the dummy’s eyes look at Guest seemingly of their own accord, and the effect is hilarious.  Now imagine watching a similar scene but having it be not only serious, but true.

“Dumbstruck” follows a variety of ventriloquists (“vents” for short) as they take their acts on what they hope is the road to fame and fortune.  The film centers on the annual “Vent Haven” competition in Kentucky, and features performers very young, very strange and very successful (exhibit A: Terry Fator, winner of “America’s Got Talent,” who now has a $100-million contract and his own theater at a Las Vegas hotel).

The film does a good job of building profiles of its subjects, and gives an especially in-depth picture of what the ventriloquism industry—such as it is—is really like.  We meet one female performer who refers to her dummys as her “children,” and dreams of performing on a cruise ship.  Another subject does, in fact, perform on cruise ships for a living, and over the course of the film his marriage unravels because of it.  There’s a young boy with an uncomfortable father who auditions (unsuccessfully) for a circus company, a very odd older woman on the brink of homelessness, and Mr. Fator, the standout, who goes from rags to riches in what must be the unlikeliest way possible.

What the film lacks is a sense of the interrogative; the performers’ foibles and circumstances are presented totally uncritically, even when it would really enrich the film if these things were fleshed out (why, for instance, does the young white boy choose a to use a black dummy?).  It’s clear that ventriloquism—like professional magic, or any other unorthodox performance art—is a magnet for people who feel disenfranchised from mainstream society.  That the film displays this fact so clearly and yet doesn’t do anything with it is something of a disappointment.  Hearing Terry Fator and his dummy sing the Etta James classic “At Last,” however, never gets old.

“Dumbstruck” Releases in NYC April 22 at Cinema Village; for release dates in other cities, see website: http://www.dumbstruckthemovie.com/