Friday, March 22, 2013

Three Neglected Gems (#36-37-38): Citizen Ruth (1996), Lila Says (2004) & Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005)

Laura Dern stars in Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth (1996)

From Japan's Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) to Italy's Marco Bellocchio (Good Morning, Night), the best filmmakers often function as commentators and observers of their country's foibles, politics and attitudes. Whether it be the razor sharp satire of Spanish director Luis Buñuel (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) or the timely and relevant dramas of French filmmaker Olivier Assayas (Cold Water, Summer Hours), those films educate, edify and illuminate the issues that roil and preoccupy a specific society, allowing uninformed viewers to glean a deeper understanding of what's going on below the sensationalist newspaper headlines and quickly tossed off news reports. Here are three films: two which revolve around the social politics, respectively, of the United States and France and another that gives a nod to a classic English novel while also examining the realities of Britain's celebrity culture.

Kelly Preston and Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth
Citizen Ruth (1996): It never got the acclaim or success of Sideways or The Descendants but Alexander Payne’s debut film, Citizen Ruth is one gutsy American movie that is sure to raise hackles with its equally biting attacks on right-wing religious anti-abortionists and left-wing pro-choicers. The Ruth of the title (Laura Dern, Jurassic Park and, more currently, Enlightened ) is a glue-sniffing, alcohol-abusing woman who has just discovered she's pregnant – for the fifth time. She's facing jail for hazardous vapour inhalation and for endangering the health of her fetus, until an exasperated judge suggests that she can avoid that fate by having an abortion. That's when a right-to-life group learns of her plight and adopts her, only to discover that their opposition wants to "save" her as well.

Citizen Ruth is not about the morality of abortion but about an America where the individual can be manipulated by both sides in pursuit of a "greater truth." But this individual is no saint, either. Ruth's main concern is to benefit from the imbroglio, preferably financially. Playing against her pristine looks, Dern is superb as the white-trash, grungy Ruth, who's usually not even aware of her surroundings. The rest of the cast – notably Mary Kay Place (Manny & Lo) and Kurtwood Smith (Robocop) as evangelistic protesters, Swoosie Kurtz as a feminist firebrand and Burt Reynolds (atoning for Striptease, released the same year) as the smarmy leader of the anti-abortion forces – are excellent, too; they're broadly played characters but never caricatures.

By tarring everyone with the same dark brush, writer/director Alexander Payne and co-scripter Jim Taylor avoid simplicity and predictability. Just when you think you know where Citizen Ruth is going, it takes a different turn and its satirical sweep increases. By film's end, everything from capitalism to family values has been wittily assailed. At a time of timidity in the arts, Citizen Ruth doesn't shy from controversy. It's subversive moviemaking.

Mohammed Khouas and Vahina Giacante in Lila Says
Lila Says (2004): Like his debut feature West Beirut (1998), Ziad Doueiri's superb follow - up film Lila Says is also concerned with a boy's coming of age amidst serious circumstances. West Beirut situated its story during Lebanon's civil war in the 1970s. Lila Says takes place in the present among the disenfranchised Muslim population of Marseilles. The aimless existence of nineteen-year- old Chimo (Mohammed Khouas) and his pals is disrupted when Lila, a 16-year-old blonde sexpot (Vahina Giacante), moves into the neighborhood. She has no time for anyone but Chimo and he falls hard for her, despite his discomfort with her sexual precociousness. His friends, however, don't approve of his relationship with the young girl and matters quickly come to a head.

Expertly shifting from fantasy as the enthralled Chimo tries to figure out what Lila's all about to the grim realities of France's lost Arab generation, Lila Says movingly examines the pair's relationship without indulging in one-dimensional portraits of the youths or the French they profess to hate. Ziad Doueiri has a great eye for imagery and a talent for drawing naturalistic performances out of his cast; like them, the delightful Lila Says never puts a foot wrong

Steve Coogan in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005): Leave it to iconoclastic director Michael Winterbottom (Code 46, 9 Songs) to find a new way to film a classic English novel. That intricate – even experimental – book, Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, has long been considered unfilmable and, in a way, Winterbottom is conceding that point. Nevertheless, he attempts it, setting the tone by having actor Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People) portray not only the adult Tristram Shandy but also an exaggerated version of himself. This alter-Coogan introduces the novel's storyline, breaking a fourth wall that's soon demolished altogether. We further follow Coogan's adventures as a harried husband, competitive actor and possible adulterer, periodically coming back to the behind-the-scenes process of filming a 21st-century costume drama and a few snippets of the final Tristram Shandy movie itself. While Coogan's 'life' here borders on the banal, that may very well be the movie's point, contrasting him to the novel's weighty themes. Winterbottom's conceit may not quite pay off but his risk-taking is exhilarating.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute. His current course, What Makes a Movie Great?, began on Feb.15. 

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