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Review: Free Zone

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Amos Gitai’s Free Zone opens with an extraordinary shot — either mesmerizing or exasperating, according to taste — of Natalie Portman in tears. Settle in; the waterworks have only just begun. Seated in the back of a junky sedan parked not far from the Wailing Wall, accompanied by a keening, repetitive Passover dirge, Portman’s character, Rebecca, about whom we know exactly nothing so far, weeps. And weeps. And weeps. The reported length of this lachrymose spectacle varies, and I didn’t look at my watch, but ten minutes can’t be much of an exaggeration. Eight, absolute minimum. Long after you think Portman must surely have run out of moisture, she’s still at it. No context is provided, apart from Rebecca’s proximity to the Wall; we hear later that she’s just left her fiancĂ©, having learned of his involvement in anti-Palestinian violence, but anyone with a passing familiarity with Gitai’s work will immediately intuit that she’s really sobbing for the whole damn Middle Eastern mess.
    Unfortunately, Gitai isn’t a filmmaker content to let the viewer intuit much of anything. He’d rather toss one Israeli woman (Hanna Laslo) and one Palestinian woman (Hiam Abbass) into the car and set them to squabbling, with Rebecca, the American, literally caught in the middle. Free Zone‘s title refers to a real location, in northeast Jordan near the borders of Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, where residents of all four countries converge for tax- and custom-free trade. Here, like everything else in a Gitai movie, it functions primarily as a big, clunky metaphor, though his big, clunky metaphors seem positively restrained when set against his didactic, interminable speeches. Laslo won the Best Actress award at Cannes a year ago for her work in this film (albeit against weak competition), and her feisty, semi-improvised performance does occasionally invest the proceedings with credible human emotion. But if the prospect of Portman’s endless abstract crying jag doesn’t set your heart a-thumpin’, stay away. It’s all downhill from there. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: Look Both Ways
Joyeux NoelOne approaches this kind of story with some wariness. You know the type — romantic comedies tackling Big Issues like Death and Mortality, mixing equal parts canned existentialism, forced sweetness and stale sentimentality. (Usually, the collective singing of a pop song is involved.) Luckily, Australian director Sarah Watt’s Look Both Ways, despite its slick veneer, is nothing of the sort. For starters, there’s little that’s calculated or smug about Watt’s engaged, riveting film — it seems to have been created by someone who is both absolutely terrified of and totally smitten with the world. Hotshot newspaper photographer Nick (William McInnes), just diagnosed with testicular cancer, runs into Meryl (Justine Clarke), an artist returning from her dad’s funeral, after the accidental — and horrific — death of a young man hit by a train. (She’s a witness, and he’s taking pictures.) Meryl is the kind of person who fantasizes about all the bad things that can happen with her as she walks down the street. (Watt, herself an animator, depicts these murderous flights of victimized fancy with quick little cartoons.) Their unlikely little meet-cute blossoms into romantic love, complicated by the fact that Nick can’t let Meryl know about his illness.
    In fact, death hovers over this entire film like a separate character, striking with abandon and never far from our heroes’ minds. And although the film’s ostensible moral is a tried-and-true variation on “seize the day”, Watt never quite lets us forget the looming darkness. Another movie would probably have used Nick’s impending mortality to counter Meryl’s loopy paranoia, to point out the frivolity of her fears. But the writer-director isn’t so quick to judge here: Nick’s stoicism and Meryl’s hysteria are really two sides of the same coin, both ways to deal with the gruesome, almost comical morbidity of life. In other words, this isn’t a lighthearted romp punctuated by moments of darkness, but a tale of despair punctuated by moments of lightness. It’s grim, hilarious, surprising and painful. Look Both Ways is a movie that feels deeply and isn’t afraid to show it. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: I Am a Sex Addict
Joyeux NoelIn Richard Linklater’s animated film, Waking Life, Caveh Zahedi transforms into a cumulus cloud. In his own movie, the confessional I Am a Sex Addict, he’s got some cloudy qualities too — diffuse, billowing in all directions and ultimately insubstantial. The film, a memoir, chronicles his twenty-year battle with sex addiction in great detail. Unfortunately, compulsive behavior tends to be repetitive and not that much fun to watch, even when the compulsion is sex.
    And yet, it’s hard not to feel a strange affection for the puckish little guy. He does his best to keep things brisk, often breaking the fourth wall for charming asides (after a title card appears reading “Paris: 1983,” Zahedi looks at the camera and says, “Actually, I wasn’t able to raise enough money to go to Paris, so I’m just going to shoot it here in San Francisco.”) He drops funny and revealing anecdotes about the cast members between their scenes. He even gets Bob Sabiston, Waking Life‘s principal artist, to animate one scene. That Zahedi wanted to keep his material light and engaging is understandable, but it also prevents him from ever examining his purported sex addiction in much depth. The sight of him flitting from one woman to the next is fun, but 100 minutes is a long time for a variety act. — Peter Smith
Review: On a Clear Day
Joyeux NoelIf you should ever have a mid-life crisis, be sure to combat your sexual anxieties, professional disappointment and fear of mortality as creatively as the characters in On a Clear Day. This adorable British comedy follows the exploits of Frank, a laid-off shipbuilder who, at fifty-five, decides to swim the freezing twenty-six-mile distance between England and France. Meanwhile, his homemaker wife, Joan, sets out to start a career driving double-decker busses. Debut director Gabby Dellal hits all the offbeat buttons with just the right quirky energy. The stereotypical sports car and boob job have never seemed so pathetic. — Michael Sean Mitchell
Date DVD: Brokeback Mountain
Dog Day AfternoonThis week, you can pick your date DVD from three homoerotic classics of modern film and television. The first, Magnum P.I.: Season Four stars the often-oiled-down Tom Selleck in many flashy aloha shirts and one memorable mustache. I’m a bit fuzzy on the plot, but I believe that, like Batman, the series traces the heartbreaking romance between Magnum and his humble British manservant, Higgins, who, when not ogling Selleck by the pool, delivers refreshing drinks and arch tid-bits of winking wisdom. Tragedy sets in when Higgins realizes he is doomed to blend piña coladas forever, as Magnum will never stop his womanizing ways.
    The second is practically a Magnum rip-off: Knight Rider: Season Four stars the often-oiled-up David Hasselhoff in many unbuttoned shirts and one memorable curly haircut. As I recall, the closeted crimefighter Hasselhoff ribs and jokes with the effete C3-PO-ish gay artificial intelligence of his manservant musclecar. Tragedy sets in, I think, when Kit realizes society is not quite ready for a man-machine relationship, even one so passionate as their own. Somewhere, even now, Hasselhoff has a musty black floormat secreted away in his closet.
    The third and least flashy DVD is, of course, Brokeback Mountain, which was passed over for best picture in favor of Crash, which had many cars, none of them talking. Compared to the Hawaiian Magnum and fast-moving Knight Rider, it’s amazing that Ang Lee’s buddy romance works at all. Without the German pop star or talking car — not even a Ferrari, for crissakes — Ang Lee’s left to work with small advantages like script and scenery and, oh, some of the best acting of the year. But even Lee owes something to Magnum. Surely inspired by Selleck, he gave Jake Gyllenhaal one hell of a mustache. — Logan Hill

   

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